Political Mudslinging: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Charles Kinney, Jr.
Political mudslinging can be found in presidential elections as early as 1796 and is still a highly effective weapon in political campaigning today. In this lesson, we will find out what political mudslinging is and how it has impacted elections for over 200 years.

An Old But Dirty Tradition

Political mudslinging is negative campaigning that directly or indirectly accuses candidates of wrongdoing or poor judgment and has been around as long as there has been politics. Mudslinging implies throwing mud at each other, and it is aptly named for the political tool of negative or smear campaigning.

Mudslinging can involve direct accusations if the information can be proved true (for example, tax evasion or adultery), insinuations (implying that the opponent has done something wrong without directly accusing), down to the lowest form of mudslinging, outright name-calling and negative imagery. However, if the mudslinging statements can be proved to be correct, mudslinging takes the moral dimension of an opponent's duty serving the greater good by exposing the weakness of the other candidate.

In an election campaign, if a candidate is facing a better-financed opponent or an incumbent opponent, one who currently holds the office that is up for election, who already has name recognition, mudslinging is frequently found. Even if a candidate does not directly get involved in mudslinging, lobby groups are an effective way to run ads and promote negative ideas. Telephone calls that appear to be polls but are in fact negative campaigning (Are you aware that candidate Smith did this?) are also definitions of mudslinging.

A Long History of Mudslinging

One of the first examples of political mudslinging during a U.S. presidential election is in 1796 when Alexander Hamilton accused Thomas Jefferson of sleeping with one of his slaves. And so began the dirty game of mudslinging that has set the tone for much of American political history. Considered to be one of the dirtiest U.S. political campaigns in history, the 1828 U.S. presidential election saw incumbent President John Quincy Adams' supporters calling Andrew Jackson's mother a prostitute, his wife a whore and Jackson a murderer and a cannibal. Jackson, whose wife died of a heart attack suspected to have been caused by the stress of the mudslinging accusations, became president.

But, it is not always the candidates who are doing the actual mudslinging. In the 1934 California governor race, Democrat Upton Sinclair, the famous author of The Jungle, who entered politics to assist people during the time of the Great Depression, was accused of being a communist by California businesses who worked behind the scenes to smear Sinclair's name. They created the slogan It's Merriam or Moscow, implying that a vote for Sinclair was a vote for a communist state. Merriam defeated Sinclair.

Your mother! (is a prostitute).
Andrew Jackson

With the advent of radio and television, mudslinging has taken an audio and visual approach to destroying a candidate. Called by some ''the Mother of all televised attack ads,'' the 1964 U.S. presidential race ad 'Daisy Girl' featured a small girl picking petals off a daisy and counting down to a nuclear explosion. Democratic Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, who went on to win the election, pictured his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater as a trigger-happy warmonger intent on nuclear annihilation.

Avoiding Libel While Destroying Your Opponent

As public figures, politicians are still subject to libel laws, meaning that if something is said about someone, is has to be true and proved by fact. Mudslinging gets around this by implying things rather than directly saying them. In the 1988 U.S. presidential election, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was destroyed by Vice-President George Bush in a vicious ad questioning Governor Dukakis' ability to lead the armed forces of the United States. The ad showed Governor Dukakis joyriding in a tank while words of Dukakis rejecting military policy rolled across the screen. This ad, which made Dukakis appear weak, was based on another ad which successfully showed Margaret Thatcher, the future prime minister of Great Britain in a similar situation.

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