In politics, “mudslinging” is a tactic used by candidates or other politicians in order to damage the reputation of a rival politician by using epithets, rumors or mean-spirited innuendos or insults. The term is often used interchangeably with the more descriptive phrase “negative campaigning.”
The term is most often used in the context of a political campaign in which one candidate “mudslings” in order to damage an opponent’s political prospects and gain an advantage with the electorate. Mudslinging is typically not geared towards exposing a difference in policy position, but is usually associated with insulting an opponent’s character or deriding them as a person.
Decried in this 2016 Chicago Tribune article, mudslinging has a long tradition in American politics, first witnessed in the heated election of 1800, in which Adams and Jefferson hurled mean-spirited epithets at each other.
While the tactic of attacking opponents with character assassinations and epithets goes back hundreds of years, the term “mudslinging” itself wasn’t coined until the late 1800s. It was derived from the Latin phrase “Fortiter calumniari, aliquia adhaerebit,” which means “to throw a lot of dirt and some of it will stick.” As a political term, “mudslinging” picked up steam after the Civil War.
Variations of the term included “dirt throwing,” “mud throwing” and “mud-gunning.”
The presidential campaign of 2016 is often cited as one of the dirtiest of all-time, with mudslinging used by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to gain advantage. A Time magazine article published just before that election ranked it in the top 5 dirtiest campaigns of all-time, but was also quick to note that mudslinging is a time-honored tradition in politics. The article singles out the elections of 1800, 1828, 1876, 1928 and 1988 as some of the most notable when it comes to mudslinging.
Described in detail in this Wall Street Journal article, the election of 1828 was particularly vicious and dirty, and is often cited as having set a standard for mudslinging that might never be matched. In that election, supporters of John Quincy Adams, running against Andrew Jackson, accused Jackson of being a cannibal and eating American Indians that were slaughtered in battle. By comparison, the mudslinging of today can seem a bit tame.
Mudslinging is related to the more modern term swiftboating, which was derived from attacks directed towards 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry by swift boat captains he served with in Vietnam, and orchestrated by supporters of his opponent, president George W. Bush.
The efficacy of mudslinging is the subject of much debate, with some believing that negative campaigning turns off voters, while others arguing that it’s a necessary component of a successful political campaign.