To “smear” someone is to spread lies and false accusations in an attempt to hurt their public image.
Smearing is similar to mudslinging, but with a few key differences. Smearing is usually false, whereas mudslinging might be true.
Smearing also tends to rely on innuendo; instead of making direct accusations, someone carrying out a smear campaign drops hints and spreads rumors.
Back in 2000, George W. Bush was running against John McCain for the Republican nomination to the presidency. The Bush campaign used hints and suggestion to smear McCain’s reputation. As the Brookings Institute described it:
McCain won the New Hampshire primary and the race went on to South Carolina where the Bush campaign knew they had to stop McCain. Using a tried and true strategy, the phony poll, opponents of McCain spread a complete falsehood. Phone calls to South Carolina Republican voters asked “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain… if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” McCain and his wife Cindy had adopted a dark-skinned girl from Bangladesh in 1991 and that child, Bridget, was campaigning with them in South Carolina.
The trouble with a smear is that, once it’s uttered, it’s hard to walk it back.
Take the case of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary campaign against Bernie Sanders. As Slate reported:
On Oct. 23, Hillary Clinton opened a new front against Sen. Bernie Sanders: She framed him as a sexist. Clinton took a phrase Sanders had routinely used in talking about gun violence—that “shouting” wouldn’t solve the problem—and suggested that he had aimed it at her because “when women talk, some people think we’re shouting.
Several journalists called out Clinton for this smear. But she refuses to withdraw it.
A smear campaign is a political campaign that relies heavily on smear tactics to discredit the opposition. Smear campaigns have a long, storied history in US politics. The Saturday Evening Post has pointed out that smear tactics date back to the late 18th century:
In the 1796 election, John Adams suffered a blow when the Boston Independent Chronicle alleged that during the Revolution he had publicly supported Washington while surreptitiously attempting to have the General cashiered. In truth, it was Adams’s second cousin, Sam, who had sought Washington’s scalp.
Half a century later, Davy Crockett, the frontiersman and sometime politician, did his best to smear Martin Van Buren by writing that Van Buren was “laced up in corsets, such as women in town wear, and if possible, tighter than the best of them.”
Why do smear tactics work, when so many of them sound so absurd?
According to research, it may have to do with our built-in discomfort with difference. A study at the University of Arizona suggests that when people are reminded of their differences from each other, they are likelier to believe smears. The study found that “cues about social differences, such as age or race, were enough to get many participants to buy into false allegations against a candidate.”