In every election year, politicians and pundits routinely attack negative campaigning, claiming that it is somehow inappropriate or harmful. This year, Newt Gingrich has been complaining about it especially loudly. But many others have said similar things.
As I see it, negative campaigning is just as useful and just as legitimate as the positive kind. In assessing candidates for public office, we need to know about their weaknesses as well as their strengths. When an employer chooses who to hire for a job, it would be foolish for him to consider only the fact that a given applicant is intelligent and knowledgeable, while ignoring evidence showing that he or she is, say, lazy and unreliable. The same goes for the process of hiring people for powerful political offices, which is ultimately what elections are all about.
Moreover, it’s important to remember that elections are comparative evaluations. We don’t just want to know how good Candidate A is. We want to know how he or she compares to opponents B, C, and D. In making such comparative judgments, negative information is just as important as the positive. Perhaps you think that Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has only modest strengths. But you might still vote for him as a lesser evil if you think his leading rivals are all truly awful. The same goes for the general election choice between the GOP nominee and Obama. You could end up preferring one of them to the other primarily because they seem to be a lesser evil than the alternative.
Obviously, negative campaign ads are sometimes inaccurate or misleading. But the same is true of positive ones. Candidates routinely exaggerate their supposed virtues and achievements. The reality of widespread political ignorance often allows politicians to get away with making false or misleading claims. But negative claims are no worse in that respect than positive ones.
Another common criticism of negative campaigning is that it leads voters to have a more negative view of the political process and to distrust government. Experts disagree about whether and to what extent this is true. But even if it is accurate, it may not be a bad thing. If voters have a more negative view of politicians and government, it might lead them to be more hesitant about entrusting those same politicians with ever-greater power. The dubious nature of most politicians is one of the reasons why it is important to restrict the size and scope of government.
UPDATE: I should mention political scientist John Geer’s 2006 book finding that negative ads actually give voters more useful information about candidates’ issue positions than positive ads do [HT: VC reader Joshua Spivak, who wrote a nice 2010 Forbes article describing some of the benefits of negative campaign ads].