I Love Negative Campaigns

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“. . . and all the children are above average.”

Garrison Keillor has made this phrase famous among the literati who listen to National Public Radio. In the mythical city of Lake Wobegon, the statistically impossible happens every day.

If it were not for the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to grant non-profit FM radio stations a legal monopoly over the lower FM frequencies, hardly anyone would have heard of Lake Wobegon. If the free market reigned, there would be a one-time sale of FM radio spectrum to the highest bidders by the Federal government. There would soon be no NPR. There would be no “All Things Considered.” There would be more country music stations.

Why doesn’t the FCC do this? Because the very suggestion of such a move would bring enormous political pressure on Congress from the listeners of NPR, who are highly literate and well-connected politically. The fans of country music are not equally well organized or equally literate. Also, they have lots of country music stations to listen to already. NPR listeners don’t. NPR listeners would be warned by NPR broadcasters to contact their political representatives in Washington, and to send letters of protest to the FCC.

In contrast, country music fans would never hear about the proposed sale of radio spectrum. Furthermore, most of them have never heard of the FCC. NPR listeners have. Also, country music fans do not wonder why it is that NPR and Christian pop music stations can afford to pay for radio spectrum. They know nothing about how radio spectrum is allocated.

Would the country be better off if the money raised by the sale were used to pay down the national debt? Of course it would: marginally. But this debt reduction would not be noticed by anyone, so large is the national debt in relation to the value of FM radio spectrum.

Country music fans would barely notice the benefit of a few extra radio stations or the imperceptible benefit of a reduced national debt. In contrast, NPR’s listeners would surely notice the demise of NPR.

FM radio is dying. Fewer people listen to it every year. They prefer satellite radio or Internet stations or Pandora. The aging Left has NPR, and it has little else.

There is one thing that the children in Lake Wobegon never do: listen to NPR.

So, what do we find? NPR stays on the air, despite the fact that most taxpayers would be a little better off if the FCC sold the spectrum. The loss sustained by a tiny special-interest group – liberals who listen to NPR – would be great. The vast majority of voters do not get their way, because they are not focused on FM radio spectrum issues. NPR listeners get their way, because they are highly interested in NPR. They get a subsidy from the government. The rest of the voters do not notice and would not care if they did notice.

We all have heard the old joke:

Speaker: “The problem with America is most voters are ignorant and apathetic.”

Listener #1 to listener #2: “Do you think he’s right?”

Listener #2 to listener #1: “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”


When it comes to any one of the tens of thousands (low-ball guess) of Federal government programs – subsidies – no one knows and no one cares. There is no personal payoff for knowing, and great frustration for caring. There is no way that anyone can keep track of all of these programs. There is also no incentive for the government to publicize all of these programs to the general public in one place. Congressmen let local voters know about programs in their districts. No one else cares.

When I served as Ron Paul’s staff economist in 1976, I learned of a policy in Washington. When a new law was passed that meant money being spent in a district, the agency would contact the local media to announce it. The district would perceive that the Congressman was behind this windfall. Sometimes, the agency would send the press release as if the Congressman had sent it. Congressman Paul officially told them not to do this in his district.

This is part of Lake Wobegon politics, where every district gets more money in subsidies from Washington than it pays in taxes to Washington.

Let’s consider why the system works the way it does. Let’s assume that the Federal government issues a credit card to each Senator (100) and each voting House member (435). There is a note attached to the credit card.

You may use the enclosed card to spend as much money as you want for benefits for your district. At the end of the fiscal year, every district will be assessed one-535th of the bill.

What would be the response of every member of Congress except Ron Paul and Rand Paul? To spend as much as he or she could. Why? Because the name of this game is spending, not saving. The savers will still pay the same as the spenders. So, the politician’s goal is to maximize the amount of money brought into his district. The bill gets larger every year.

To this, we must add another twist: there is no ceiling on the credit card balance. Every time the ceiling is hit, Congress votes to raise it.

The existing system has favored governments that tax people in order to spend money on special-interest voting blocs, minus 50% for handling. The Federal government extracts a considerable percentage for handling. The voters pay more in taxes than they receive back.

The politicians always campaign in terms of Lake Wobegon promises: every voter in his district will get back more money than whatever voters outside the district will receive.

The amount of money that gets absorbed by the bureaucrats who administer any spending program is always substantial. The administration of a program absorbs an ever-larger percentage of the budget over time. The people administering it benefit from this transfer of funds from the official beneficiaries to the unofficial beneficiaries: the administrators.

At long last, this has created a taxpayer revolt. Enough Republicans in the House opposed the increase in the debt ceiling in fiscal 2011 to force President Obama to accept a compromise: a super-committee that will act on behalf of Congress to cut spending in calendar year 2012. Beginning in January, automatic cuts will begin if the committee cannot come to any agreement over what spending to cut before then.

That will be a moment of truth for Congress. We will see whether Congress will accept automatic cuts. We will see how much clout special-interest voters have – voters who have been on the dole from the Federal government. Will they be able to persuade Congress to relent, vote to reverse the cuts, and accept a higher deficit?

In a Presidential election year, special-interest groups are especially powerful. They become swing voters. Their votes at the margin can make or break a political campaign.

If the spending cuts required by the 2011 debt ceiling law are allowed to be imposed in 2012, either by the committee or by the automatic cutting process, this will mark a turning point in American national politics. I hope the cuts stand. This would mark a major reversal of Lake Wobegon politics. It would reverse a century of budget deficits.


In direct-response advertising, the copywriter seeks the hottest hot button of a proposed audience, such as a mailing list of previous buyers. A hot button is something that a person finds irresistible. It is the focus of his concern. He is more interested in it than any other problem he faces or goal he has adopted.

The hotter the button, the smaller the audience. There are very few hot buttons that appeal to most voters. If one exists, all candidates say they favor it. Example: Medicare.

Let’s say that you decide to run for Congress next year. You are fed up with out-of-control spending. You are fed up with endless budget deficits. You want to campaign on this platform:

1. Balance the budget.2. Cut spending.3. Cut taxes (say to 4-4-4).

You would get my vote, but how many others would vote for you?

The liberal media would pounce. “So, you propose to cut spending. Exactly what programs would you cut? By how much?”

Why will they do this? Because they want to see you lose. Also, because they understand the hot-button phenomenon.

Let’s say that there are five major programs that you want to cut. Let’s say that they are so prominent that they all are cabinet-level programs. Let’s say that you are really hard core. You propose a 100% reduction. You propose to eliminate all five cabinets. You make this part of your campaign. At this point, your opponent has what every politician dreams of: a gift list.

It is easy to campaign on increasing spending on special projects. The politician broadcasts this only in speeches to the organizations that will benefit from the increased flow of money after handling costs (never mentioned). The voters in general never hear about these specifics. Even if they do hear about one of them, the politician says “this is too important not to adopt.”

But spending cuts are a horse of a different color. Here, the opposition candidate can do mailings to members of the special-interest groups. “My opponent says he will cut all funding for [your boondoggle]. I vow to fight him on this with everything I’ve got. Elect me this November.”

This is a reverse hot button. The cost-cutter has handed five reverse hot buttons to his opponent, which his opponent will use in his mailings.

Here are fundamental strategies of political campaigns:

1. The incumbent’s staff searches for incriminating quotations from something the challenger wrote years ago or (even better) said at a meeting that was videotaped.

2. The challenger’s staff searches for controversial votes made by the incumbent that the incumbent has successfully concealed from local special-interest groups.

One of the reasons why Congressional bills are written in ways to conceal their meaning is because the Good Old Boys in Congress seek to keep this knowledge away from voters.

One way to do this is to write a bill to announce that it is changing specific words in a previous law. It does not quote the law – only specific words in part of the law’s text. The context is missing. In the days before the Internet, it was difficult to track down the law and find what the law specified. Only a handful of researchers would do this.

I remember a light-hearted remark by Congressman Phil Crane, who replaced Donald Rumsfeld in a special election in 1969, when Rumsfeld resigned to take a job with the Nixon Administration. Crane served until his defeat in 2002. Here is what he said in a speech at a conference I sponsored.

Sometimes, a constituent asks me at a town hall meeting, “Why did you vote against the bill to do this or that?” I always say, “Because of Section 17B. I could never vote for anything like that.” Of course, I have no idea what was in Section 17B.

I don’t know if Crane really did this, but he got the point across. In a bill running 1,000 to 2,000 pages, no one remembers what was in Section 17B.


California State Senator H. L. “Bill” Richardson served for decades. He was the founder of Gun Owners of America, a lobbying organization opposing gun control. He was the author of the classic little book, What Makes You Think We Read the Bills? He developed a strategy for getting liberals to stop promoting gun control.

He would identify a state politician who was voting for gun control. The guy was not a major promoter of gun control, but he was a reliable vote. Voters in his district favored gun control.

Richardson had been in advertising before he went into politics. He understood direct mail. So, he would look for a vote the guy made on a law that a lot of people in his district opposed. Of course, the guy had kept this vote quiet in his district. It might even be something that Richardson had supported. Anyway, it was something peripheral to gun control. Richardson would write a direct-mail ad exposing the guy’s vote. He would rent lists from special-interest groups in the guy’s district that were furious with his vote. He would start the mailing campaign in an election year. He made sure word got out in Sacramento that he was behind the mailing. The guy would come to him and beg him to stop. Richardson said he would, but only if the guy switched sides on gun control. The guy, not being a fanatic on gun control, would agree.

Here is Richardson’s law of political pressure: “Politicians respond to pain.” Senator Everett Dirksen offered this version: “When we feel the heat, we see the light.”

This is a variation of the reverse hot-button strategy. Incumbents conceal certain votes from their constituents. They do this in order not to get organized groups in their districts to mobilize and go to the polls to vote for their opponents.


We can hope and pray that the spending cuts will begin next year, so as to bring down the Federal deficit. Balancing the budget is for soft-core Tea Party voters. The budget needs to be in surplus, so as to allow the reduction of the debt to zero over the next decade, if not sooner.

I do not expect to see any politician campaign on a platform to reduce the debt to zero. That has not happened since 1836, and it had never happened before 1836. For anyone to campaign on such a platform, he would face more reverse hot-button voters than any politician has ever faced. I do not think it likely that he would be elected.

My advice for an aspiring politician is to find votes that the incumbent prefers to conceal from the voters back home, and to design direct-mail campaigns warning special-interest groups of what the incumbent did. This could be done as a negative campaign funded by some other group. The letter or TV ad would not say to vote for the challenger. It would say only that the incumbent has betrayed the particular special-interest group and deserves to be defeated in November.

In politics, there are winners and losers. Democracy rewards politicians who buy the support of special-interest groups by promising to vote for bills favoring their interests. This is hot-button politics. The best way for budget-cutters to implement hot-button politics is to use a reverse hot-button strategy. Enrage special-interest voters with the message that the incumbent has betrayed them.

Negative campaigns favor candidates who favor limited government.

Let’s have more attack ads, more negative campaigns, and more scapegoats. There is nothing as good as an after-election meal of roast scapegoat.

October 27, 2011

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2011 Gary North