Yes, 2018 could be the most negative election cycle on record.
In Florida, where my firm is based, the slate of summer and fall special elections produced campaigns which quickly turned negative. In many of those races, the attacks were mostly outlandish and nearly devoid of facts. Nationally, it’s clear that the Trump era has ushered in new rules for campaigns.
In fact, this is the era of record high partisan antipathy. According to recent polling by Pew, 45 percent of Republicans have a “very unfavorable” view of Democrats. Among Democrats, “44 percent have a “very unfavorable” view of Republicans.
For perspective, in 1994 only 16 percent of Democrats had a “very unfavorable” view of Republicans and only 17 percent of Republicans felt the same about Democrats.
Examining presidential approval ratings further illuminates this deepening partisan divide. In the 1960s and 1970s the spread between Republicans and Democrats when it came to approval ratings for President Nixon maxed at 33 percent. In comparison, the divide between parties for President Trump’s approval rating is 80 percent. Americans have not experienced this level of division politically since the Civil War era.
Now, antipathy isn’t reserved for those on the other side of the aisle. Both parties are experiencing deep rifts between their moderate/establishment factions and their ideologically radical grassroots elements. On the right, our nation’s politically conservative Congress is losing a battle with this populist White House. On the left, party leaders are experiencing the backlash of a young, ideologically radical element which is, in many ways, the mirror image of the Tea Party movement.
For nearly two decades, the chasm between acceptable cultural behavior and acceptable political behavior was wide. In the early 1990s, television producers began to push sex, conflict, violence and explicit language creating a new perception of social norms in America.
Prior to Donald Trump’s foray into politics, American pols held the line on pearl clutching cultural norms of the 1960s and rarely engaged in “edgy” behavior. What the media and political commentators found outrageous about Trump, American television audiences simply saw what they viewed on every television program.
Trump’s bombastic style forced the convergence of political and popular culture, and set a new standard for how to get voters’ attention. The Trump style of campaigning has accustomed much of the electorate to strong attacks based on dubious facts.
Voters no longer feel overly negative campaigning is a disqualification of character. In fact, it often appears the voters increasingly prefer candidates who exhibit aggressive political behavior.
In any case, the current situation is one where American voters are angry and accustomed to hardcore political messaging.
If partisan antipathy and Trumpian rhetoric are combustibles, the internet is the accelerant keeping the flames burning blue.
The internet knows no censor and does not suffer balance or moderation. In Freudian terms, the digital world is the unbridled expression of the American political “Id” where the brutest parts of our political culture mingle and reinforce each other.
Here, everyone expresses intense opinions, but is subject to the onslaught of the digital mob if that opinion is out-of-step with the views of the many.
The net effect of political life lived digitally is a growing radicalism across the political spectrum in which only the extreme voice is a credible voice.
The new political environment will require campaigns to “go ugly” early instead of waiting for the final weeks of the campaign. The first candidate to attack not only labels the opposition, but also aligns with the simmering anger of the electorate. The only sin of negative campaigning in 2018 will be simply not having enough negative material ready to roll out the door.
In 2018, the media won’t be able to provide cover for campaigns besieged by false attacks. A decline in local newspaper readership and new viewership, combined with the widespread distrust of the media, effectively negates their ability to referee. Overall, media coverage on any one attack will be muted by the sheer volume of hits being launched.
The combination of culture shifts, Trump, and social media place added stress on our already fractious society. Without question, America is in political chaos, which has equal chances of either improving or descending further into upheaval.
Unfortunately for even the most idealistic candidates, our culture is bigger than our campaigns. Winning races in 2018 will likely require driving wedges deeper into the cracks of American society.
Joe Clements is the co-founder of Strategic Digital Services (SDS), a GOP technology firm based in Florida.