Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
With about a week to go, the statewide runoff campaigns have turned negative. Surprise, Surprise. People wonder why this happens. It happens for two reasons: Neither candidate wants to lose — and it works. Most of us have something in our lives we’d just as soon everyone not know about. It could be something personal like an embarrassing family situation. Or, perhaps it’s something in our business dealings like a lawsuit. For people with a record in politics, it’s often having taken an unpopular stand on an issue or having made a stupid remark publicly.
Usually, in any campaign as soon as the field is set the candidates and their consultants begin looking into the backgrounds of their opponents to find the dirt. In larger races like Congress and statewide races, there are professionals who do “negative research” for a fee. The candidate usually tells himself he won’t stoop to using negative tactics, but the consultant knows he will if it comes to that. It usually comes to that toward the end of the race when polling shows that one of the candidates can’t win without taking the other candidate down. Once the first blow is struck, the other candidate strikes back, and the mudslinging shifts into full gear. Conventional wisdom in a close race is, correctly, that if you’re being taken down you must take your opponent down with you. Positive messages just don’t pull like personal foibles.
While a lot of voters don’t pay much attention until the last few weeks of the campaign, most candidates in a major statewide campaign have at least two years of their lives invested in the race. They start thinking about it, weighing the options, talking to family, making plans, talking to potential supporters, raising money, and doing whatever their personality requires to convince themselves this is the right course for their lives. It’s a risky and life changing endeavor. It will likely cost them money, and it will put their reputation at risk. If they run a successful enough campaign to come under serious public scrutiny, they will never be the same person again. They will be the person who did this or that or said this or that or stood for this or that. After a couple of years of dedicating their life to the effort… well, they want to win.
So, they do what they feel they need to do. It’s interesting that voters claim not to like negative campaigning, but when it comes to deciding whom to vote for at least enough of us are affected by the negative information to make a difference. In fact, I think we all are, if only to confirm who we were inclined to vote for from the beginning. Listen to people (including yourself) talk about the candidates. At this point it’s usually about the negative stuff. There’s an old saying that you can’t take the politics out of politics. Slightly modified, you can’t take the human out of human nature.