Here’s a thought-experiment to consider: Imagine a third party in the American political system bringing about civility and respectful dialogue, without electing even a single candidate to office.
Let’s call it the Civility Party. It would never do any negative campaigning. Indeed, it wouldn’t even have a platform, nor would it campaign at all. It would have only one role—as a spoiler. When a major-party candidate got too nasty, the moderate and independent voters who otherwise would have supported him or her could, instead, cast a protest vote for the Civility Party’s candidate.
So what, you’re probably thinking. There are plenty of third parties now, but it doesn’t matter. The nastiness just keeps getting worse, and everybody knows protest votes are useless.
True enough—but let’s take a closer look at just why that is. Most voters who are offended by nasty campaigning do not cast protest votes. Instead, they “hold their noses” and vote for the major-party candidate they dislike least. Because negative campaigning is so widespread, both candidates probably are doing it, so a lot of people reluctantly vote for whichever candidate they would have chosen anyway. As a result, there is no downside to negative campaigning. Politicians sling the mud without restraint, hoping more of it sticks to their opponent.
Even if some voters are disgusted enough to choose third parties, they are not making a clear statement in favor of civility because nobody knows why they voted as they did. If a third party gets more votes than usual in a particular year, that might have nothing to do with the behavior of the major-party candidates. Maybe it’s because voters are more interested in the third party’s issues or see the third party’s candidate as having better qualifications.
The Civility Party would change things by accurately tracking the number of votes lost because of campaign nastiness. In close elections with a lot of mudslinging, that number could end up being more than the margin of victory. Such results would demonstrate to both politicians and voters that it really is possible to punish uncivil candidates with enough protest votes to cost them the election. If enough voters got in the habit of doing it, there would be an effective structural deterrent to negative campaigning.
Of course, in states or districts where one major party or the other regularly wins by a large margin, Civility Party votes would have no impact (except in a state like California that has open primaries). But realistically, the campaign budgets for such areas are small anyway. The vast majority of general-election campaigning takes place in competitive states and districts where victory comes down to persuading a small number of moderate and independent voters to choose one side or the other. And that’s where the Civility Party could play the spoiler effectively.
It probably will never happen though, because by the time we reached the point where enough voters cared strongly about civility to make a difference in the outcome of elections, our culture likely would have changed enough for the better that a Civility Party wouldn’t be needed.