Voters turned negative toward negative campaigns

SIGNAL FILE PHOTO: A polling place worker hands a sticker to a voter after he completed his ballot at Fire Station 73 in Newhall in November. Katharine Lotze/Signal

In the aftermath of one of the nastiest, most negative campaign seasons in recent memory – both on the national and local levels – one refrain kept emerging Wednesday in conversations with politicians and political observers:

Negativity is effective – but it only goes so far.

Beyond a certain threshold, negative campaigning backfires.

That, at least, was the take-away from the Wednesday Morning Quarterbacks who spoke to The Signal in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, and the victories recorded by several Republican candidates locally.

Phil Gussin, a political science professor at College of the Canyons, speculated that voters, both locally and nationally, had had their fill of negativity and reacted … well, negatively.

“Negativity breaks through,’’ Gussin said. “Policy is complicated. Nasty, everybody can get into. It’s easy to understand. But maybe because this campaign was so nasty for so long at the national level … people we feeling a nasty fatigue.’’

That might have benefited local candidates who are more well known, such as Republicans Steve Knight, Scott Wilk and Dante Acosta – all targets of heavy negative campaigns, and all Election Night winners – Gussin speculated.

“Maybe the nastiness just canceled each other out, and you rely on other things like name recognition,’’ Gussin said.

According to COC political science professor Majid Mosleh, even Trump (as nasty as he was during the campaign) was a victim of negativity – and ultimately a beneficiary of its backlash.

“The media obviously seemed to be leaning more toward Hillary’s campaign,’’ said Mosleh. “There was such negativity directed at Donald Trump that, in my judgment, it backfired.

“Trump received more negativity (than he dished out) from the media, but also from the polls. It made Trump’s campaign seem like a campaign destined to lose.’’

It turned Trump into – of all things – an underdog, Mosleh said.

“It did not help the Democratic Party, and it certainly did not appeal to a large segment of the American electorate,’’ Mosleh said.

The candidates themselves had their own takes on the effects of negative campaigning.

“Unfortunately, a negative campaign works, but it only works to an extent, and if you go overboard, then people don’t like it,’’ said Knight, who won a second term to the 25th Congressional District despite a relentless stream of attack ads by Democrat Bryan Caforio and the state Democratic Party.

Knight was portrayed — often in grainy, sinister-looking black-and-white photos — as a dangerous extremist, insensitive to women and seniors, in bed with special interests and in lockstep with a sexist, xenophobic Trump.

While Knight’s campaign at times went negative as well – portraying Caforio as a carpetbagging Beverly Hills lawyer and Ivy League elitist – he was on the receiving end of much more than he dished out.

But Knight won. And negativity lost.

“It’s not all him (Caforio),’’ Knight said. “The DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) has this playbook that says, ‘Bash him, bash him, bash him.’

“Well, it didn’t work. It worked in just two districts, one in Florida and one in Vegas. The other 17 or 18 times they tried it, it didn’t work.

“I’m glad we have a smart voting base — they saw through the smoke screen,” he said.

Wilk, who defeated Democrat Johnathon Ervin for the 21st state Senate seat, said voters responded similarly in his race.

“My opponent accepted $2 million from Sacramento special interests and spent most of the money attacking me and my personal life,’’ Wilk said. “I believe voters are smart … and responded to that in the polls.’’

Acosta, victorious over Democrat Christy Smith for the 38th Assembly District seat, called a news conference last month to denounce “racist” ads against him. A sometime actor, Acosta was pictured in the Democratic ads in one of his acting poses – looking, he said, “like a thug.”

Additionally, an email from a woman accusing Acosta of sexual harassment was anonymously leaked, prompting Acosta to deny the allegations publicly in what remains a case of she-said, he-said.

But again, the negative portrayals did not prove to be a decisive factor.

“People were not swayed by the negative campaigning,’’ Acosta said Wednesday. “I think, from the top down, people saw through that.’’

He attributed victory to “my conveying a positive message as to what we can do.’’

Michael Soller, communications director of the California Democratic Party, said the negative ads were fair game — and that tactics such a linking local candidates to Trump, in sometimes caricatured ways, illustrated larger, important, points.

He also indicated: Don’t expect the playbook to change.

“Our argument was pretty simple – that representatives in Congress are going to support a Trump agenda, and calling them out to either stand with or reject Trump’s racism and anti-women statements is fair,” Soller said.

“But we do try to document where the quotes comes from — there is a factual basis.”

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