Stephanie's Political Arena

Critiques and Perspectives on National Politics and More

Steering Through Turbulent Airwaves

with 11 comments

I received a number of interesting comments in response to my previous post about Belizean Grove (thanks everyone), including one from a fellow student in the graduate program in which I am enrolled.  For The Badger Herald, one of the student newspapers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Joe, my classmate, wrote about the decline in the number of women serving in the Wisconsin Legislature. 

Without getting into any conflicts of interest since I work for one of those women, what caught my attention in Joe’s article were the reasons provided that have deterred women from running for office in Wisconsin.  Rep. Kelda Helen Roys (D-Middleton) – not my boss, for the record – is quoted in the article as saying, “Campaigns are nastier and more expensive… This acts as a deterrent to women and young people.”

I’ll focus on the money aspect of campaigns in a separate post and focus on the “nasty” side of running for office at this time.

For one of my classes this semester, I read In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns by John Geer.  Basically, Geer defends negative campaigning and argues that this practice is beneficial for democracy.  He claims that “negativity can advance and improve the prospects for democracy” because it allows a forum in which candidates are vetted by their opponents (Geer, 2006).  As long as issues are the focus of negative attacks, opposing candidates differentiate themselves from one another, both educating voters and giving them clear choices on Election Day.

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In reading Geer’s book, I’d also like to point out that compared to today’s negative campaign tactics, those practiced in the early days of American politics were even “nastier.”  As Geer cites in his book, during the Jackson-Adams presidential election of 1828, Jackson had been branded a “murderer and a cannibal” and his wife was accused of “being a whore.”  And before that, there was the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel during the 1804 New York gubernatorial election in which Burr shot and mortally wounded Hamilton following continuous personal attacks against each other (Geer, 2006).

“Campaigns are not feel-good exercises; they are pitched battles for control of the government” (Geer, 2006).  And, unfortunately, they will remain “nasty” for a long time.  Thus, my advice to women who want to run but are deterred by the negativity in campaigning: toughen up.  If you’re a former high school and/or college athlete especially, think of the attacks your opponent will launch at you as “defenders” you need to get past in order to score that tie-breaking basket or goal.  Stay classy, rise above those attacks, and win that election.


Written by Stephanie

April 10, 2011 at 10:29 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Developing a thick skin toward the “nasty” things that people say can be extremely beneficial as you go through life, not just for politicians but also for journalists!

    Erin Podolak

    April 11, 2011 at 3:55 am

  2. Stephanie, I agree with Erin about your “toughen up” message; it’s advice that can be applied to so many areas in life! The successful people are always going to find their personal power and rise above the naysayers.

    It’s interesting, though, to think about women and how they’re socialized to respond to negativity. The political ‘game’ to me has always seemed pretty nasty. I’m of the personal belief that people have the right to be fallible; to make mistakes, learn from them, and then amend their lives. In political campaigns, however, it seems like all of the candidates’ past mistakes and errors (of which we’re *all* capable) are dredged up and criticized beyond what is necessary. It must take an extremely strong and thick-skinned – perhaps even consciously oblivious – individual to withstand that kind of public scrutiny.

    With my temperament, I know that I could not handle that kind of pressure. I have the sense that women are socialized to be “nice” and form supportive social bonds with other people. I guess I’m wondering: is this female community idea a stereotype? And, do campaigns really have to focus upon the negative in order to be effective?


    April 11, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    • Thanks for your feedback, Victoria, and for your good questions.
      I would say the “female community idea” that you alluded to is a stereotype. We’re essentially programmed to be the “caregivers” both within the household and in the community. Nothing wrong with that, but as I mentioned in a previous post, serving in public office is the same thing as serving the community.
      Unfortunately, I don’t see the negativity disappearing anytime soon. It’s already been there for at least 200 years and will still be there 200 years from now…


      April 17, 2011 at 6:00 pm

  3. I feel I’m on the other end here. I still can’t stand the negative campaign ads. It’s still the most piss-poor reporting out there. It continually feels like the elementary school playground politics have transfered right to the real world. It seems nearly everyone I run into will speak in disgust about how absurd the negative ads are, but on a large scale, people buy into it, that’s why they’re still here and prolific.

    Eric V

    April 14, 2011 at 2:16 am

    • Thanks Eric! Yes, sadly voters will continue to be exposed to negative campaign ads for the foreseeable future…


      April 17, 2011 at 6:01 pm

  4. I’m with Eric, I can’t accept that candidates must toughen up simply because being nasty is the way things are in campaigning these days. Something needs to change. The ads are nauseating.

    Tom S.

    April 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    • Thanks Tom! Yeah, trying dealing with those ads directly and how to respond to those that attack your boss!
      I took a class last year in which part of a research project I did entailed looking into the impact of negative campaigning on electoral participation. A number of studies have shown that in some ways voters are completely turned off by negative campaign ads – sometimes to the point of just staying home on Election Day. On the other hand, studies have also shown that negative campaign ads tend to be more educational to voters than candidates themselves speaking about their campaigns and trying to educate voters. Plus, it’s the “horserace coverage” factor of elections that make negative campaigning that much more appealing.
      As I mentioned above, those nauseating ads are, unfortunately, here to stay for quite some time…


      April 17, 2011 at 6:05 pm

  5. Stephanie, your posts tend to stir people up, which is great. Do you agree that nasty campaigns are a major factor keeping women out of politics? I tend to suspect that nasty campaigns and money might be part of the reason, but that the real answer’s more complex (spheres of power and your Belizean Grove post come to mind).

    Amy Karon

    April 15, 2011 at 4:02 am

    • Thanks for your questions, Amy. As Joe alluded to in his article, I think the negativity is only a small deterrent in keeping women from running for office. As you said, money is definitely a factor as well as the lack of recruitment – which I found in doing research for my magazine story.
      At least two of my sources have indicated that women simply need to be asked and recruited to run for office. Unlike men, they typically won’t consider running on their own. They need someone to nudge them in that direction.
      For those that do actually consider running, that’s where money, negativity, and the overwhelming task of trying to organize a campaign tend to make them think twice about running…


      April 17, 2011 at 6:09 pm

  6. Thanks again for citing me, Stephanie! This negativity stuff does work. But so does the negativity on negativity, and the negativity on …..etc. It is all a big game. Women are probably the tougher sex about 85% of the time, I think they’ll catch on and gain equity. The old white men’s tricks are very tired and transparent. Hopefully women in Wisconsin will lead the charge and rebound from those awful numbers. I checked out the numbers of female senators and in the U.S. House, and the numbers are appalling! Especially for the Republicans, so kudos for highlighting Kleefisch, even though she has some pretty bad opinions on homosexuality (see my Badger Herald archives).

    Joe Doolen

    April 19, 2011 at 5:24 am

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