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Going Negative

Dirty Presidential Campaigns

With the election cycle in full swing, Americans hear and see political messages every day.  Many of these messages will praise a certain candidate’s voting record and virtues, while other ads will be negative in spirit and attack opponents and draw attention to their perceived shortcomings.

Americans are used to so-called “dirty campaigns,” in which candidates emphasize their opponent’s flaws rather than their own merits.  Indeed, dirty campaigning is so commonplace that many Americans believe that recent elections have been the most negative political contests in American history.

In reality, dirty campaigns are as American as apple pie, baseball, and the Bill of Rights-even early leaders like Adams and Jefferson attacked one another openly and viciously.  This eLesson takes students on a whirlwind tour of American political history and reveals the negative campaigns of the past, while challenging them to think about the role of “dirty politics” in the present.


Presidential Ads [Video]


  1. As homework the night before or as in-class assignments, have students read the articles “Stuck in the Muck” and “Is this the Nastiest Election Ever?”
  2. Lead a class discussion based on the readings. You may choose to provide additional background on the most negative elections discussed in each article.
    1. When did American politics become negative in its tone?
    2. Until the late 1800s, most presidential candidates did not spend very much time traveling around the country to campaign. How did candidates share their messages to voters, and how did they carry out attacks on rivals?
  3. How did the nature of negative campaigning change over time? Do you believe the kinds of attacks have largely remained the same? Explain your answer.
  4. What are some of the common attacks candidates have launched? Answers may include but are not limited to the following.
    1. Criticism of policies and political philosophy
    2. Criticism of voting record
    3. Personal scandals (such as marital infidelity, past arrests, or drug use)
    4. Personal and public financial mismanagement
    5. Past corruption
    6. Criticism of gaffes
  5. How have candidates delivered attacks on opponents? Answers may include but are not limited to the following.
    1. Television ads
    2. Radio ads
    3. Speeches
    4. Press releases
    5. Debates
    6. Interviews and talk show appearances
    7. Direct mail advertisements
    8. Internet video
    9. Social media outreach
  6. In class, show students the famous television attack ads provided in the links. Provide context for each video clip, explaining who was running in each election, their party affiliation, policies, and the major policy disputes during those election years.
  7. Based upon what students saw in the television ads, students should consider or respond to the following questions.
    1. Did the method of communicating negative ideas change over time? If so, how?
    2. Do ads help or hinder the election process? For what reasons might a person believe negative ads are beneficial?  Why might they be harmful?  If students believe negative ads have no effect on the campaign, ask them to explain why.
      1. Many people who work in politics argue that dirty campaigns are important because candidates will never be honest about themselves, their policies, and their voting records, and that negative ads shed light on information that would never otherwise be heard. Critics argue that they debase the tone of a serious electoral process and distract from substantive dialogue and debate.
    3. Do negative ads work? Do students believe such attacks are successful in persuading voters to vote a certain way?  Why or why not?  After watching historical campaign ads, was their perception of a past candidate changed?
    4. Are negative ads reflective of voters’ interests? Do they touch on issues that Americans care about?
    5. If students were to create one rule that would alter how congressional and presidential elections are carried out, what change would they make and why? If they believe the system does not need reform, why?