I keep hearing that people don’t like negative campaigning, but the discussion then shifts to personal attacks, as if that’s what negative campaigning means. I think these are different matters. One can engage in negative campaigning without attacking anyone personally (although it’s hard to imagine a personal attack that does not constitute negative campaigning).
A positive campaign consists in setting out (or displaying) one’s background, character, principles, and policies. The candidate says, in effect, “Here’s what I stand for; here’s who I am; here’s what matters to me; here’s what I will work to achieve; here are my values.” A positive campaign makes no reference to what one’s opponent(s) stand(s) for.
A negative campaign, in contrast, consists in setting out—and then criticizing—one’s opponent’s background, character, principles, and policies. It is other-directed rather than self-directed. It runs another down rather than building oneself up.
I believe that the opposition to negative campaigning, so understood, is that it is insulting to the electorate. The candidates must think that unless they run the other(s) down, the voters will not be able to figure out for themselves how and why the candidates’ principles and policies differ. The voters are being treated like children. Most voters are intelligent enough to understand such differences. They want to hear what each candidate will do upon being elected. Having heard this, they will compare the views and decide how to vote.
If I (god forbid) were a candidate for public office, I would set out my principles and policies as clearly as I can and let the chips fall where they may. I would not even address the views or values of my opponent(s). If what I say appeals to the voters, they will elect me; if not, they won’t. I retain my pride and self-respect; the voters feel as though they are treated like adults (because they are). The system itself is cleansed of negativity. Politics becomes noble again. All of us are better (and better off) for it.