In the recent presidential election in South Korea held on March 9th, 2022, relentless name-calling succeeded in making both the leading candidates extremely unpopular. Democratic candidate Lee Jae-myung and Conservative candidate Yoon Seok-yul faced personal attacks related to alleged corruption, resume-faking, and domestic violence. In one particularly strange instance, Yoon Seok-Yul was even accused of having connections to an “anal acupuncture specialist.” Lee’s party described Yoon as a “beast,” a “dictator,” and “an empty can,” while Yoon fired back at Lee by comparing him to “Hitler” and “Mussolini.” 

Voters may become frustrated when politicians focus their time and energy attacking their opponents instead of promoting their own policies. All the insult-throwing was disappointing for many South Korean voters, who were looking to hear how the candidates would tackle crucial issues such as rising housing prices and income inequality. “The candidates are not focused on the core issues and all they do is point out each other’s faults and scandals,” said one voter interviewed by YouTube media company Asian Boss

Though name-calling may be a turn-off to voters, politicians often use it to better their chances in elections. Political mudslinging, more formally known as negative campaigning, is a tactic candidates use to damage a rival’s reputation. As one might guess, this strategy gets its name from the literal act of throwing mud at someone else. Mudslinging can involve direct and indirect accusations as well as name-calling. Candidates engaged in mudslinging have gone as far as to accuse their opponents of adultery, bribery, and tax evasion, and have also dug up dirt on each other’s family members. 

Is This a Recent Phenomenon?

Mudslinging is hardly new. Long before the recent South Korean election, politicians all over the world have been using mudslinging against their opponents. Some notable examples include: 

  • Ancient Rome: In the first century BCE, Roman orator Cicero compared financial official Vatinius, whom he believed was accepting bribes, to a “snake crawling from its den,” with a “swollen throat” and a “bulging neck.” 
  • United States: In 1802, journalist James Callender alleged Thomas Jefferson “keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves.” 
  • United Kingdom: In the 1997 general election, the Conservative Party made a poster titled, “New Labour, New Danger,” depicting Labour Party leader Tony Blair with “demon eyes.” 
  • Poland: In the 2005 presidential election, candidate Lech Kaczynski’s campaign chief attacked candidate Donald Tusk by saying that “Tusk’s grandfather volunteered for the Wehrmacht [Hitler’s army].”  
  • Philippines: In the 2016 general election, candidate Antonio Fuentes Trillanes IV aired an ad that showed clips of then-mayor Rodrigo Duterte cursing the Pope and joking about rape, with clips of children asking if what he was doing was right. 

Why is Mudslinging so Rampant? 

Mudslinging is considered by many politicians to be a rational course of action – there’s a reason why politicians have been using it since the times of the Ancient Greeks. Cicero himself notes that discrediting one’s opponent is equally as important as promoting oneself: “in persuading successfully, it is very important that the character, principles, actions, and way of life be approved… and that likewise [the traits of] one’s opponents be exposed to disapproval.”

More recent studies confirm that negative campaigning can bring benefits – if done well, candidates can attract undecided voters and lower positive feelings about the opponent. However, candidates do have to be careful because there is also a cost. The cost is a “backlash” effect – a risk of getting flamed in return and losing support themselves. Politicians choose to engage in mudslinging when the benefits outweigh the costs – that is when the likelihood of attracting voters is greater than that of getting attacked in return. 

Analyses show that the costs and benefits of a candidate “going negative,” or using negative speech to vilify their opponents, depend on their position in the race and personal profile. 

Firstly, candidates falling behind in polls are more likely to use mudslinging than those leading in polls. Mudslinging is a gamble because it has the potential benefit of reducing support for the opponent, but also the cost of receiving insults or accusations in return. But when a candidate is falling behind, they have less to lose – they will only fall back more in polls if the plan backfires. Thus, candidates facing electoral failure have a bigger incentive to engage in mudslinging.

Secondly, incumbents are less likely to “go negative” than those running for their first term. Incumbents running for a second term should aim for their campaigns to say something like, “This country is doing great, let’s keep it that way.” Since those already in office focus their campaign on their accomplishments, they tend to build campaigns that promote themselves positively. On the other hand, challengers should aim for their campaign to say, “The current leader is doing a bad job, we need change.” They do not have the option to build on their accomplishments, so challengers are more likely to criticize opponents instead of praising themselves. 

Thirdly, female candidates have a smaller incentive to use mudslinging compared to male candidates. Female candidates using negative rhetoric are seen as going against social stereotypes that characterize women as passive, kind, and sympathetic. Thus, when female candidates use negative rhetoric, they are more likely to face insults in return. This suggests that female politicians have a smaller incentive to run negative campaigns. 

How Can We Analyze Mudslinging in Elections?

Going back to the South Korean presidential election, we can analyze why there was rampant mudslinging between the leading candidates. 

Firstly, opinion polls show that Yoon was slightly behind Lee in January, while Lee was slightly behind Yoon in February and March. Because both candidates were only falling a few percentage points behind each other, they both had a strong incentive to lash out at each other to gain that final margin of support. 

Secondly, neither of the South Korean candidates had previously held office. Since they do not have accomplishments in office to base self-promoting campaigns on, Lee and Yoon both tried to discredit each other. 

Thirdly, neither of the South Korean candidates was female. Neither Yoon nor Lee would be at a disadvantage for using mudslinging, which could explain why both parties were quick to start name-calling. 

While these three factors can be great starting points, it’s also important to acknowledge that there are other factors involved in mudslinging. For example, Joe Biden regularly insulted Donald Trump’s character in the 2020 US presidential election despite leading in the polls and having public office experience. Thus, some researchers have proposed that other factors such as a candidate’s personality traits and available campaign resources play into the dynamics of mudslinging.

Since mudslinging in politics is strategic, we most likely won’t see an end to it any time soon. Name-calling isn’t beneficial for us voters, but we should remember that, for politicians, it often is. The next time we see politicians criticizing one another instead of focusing on their policies, we can use these tools to figure out their strategy for doing so. When we equip ourselves to see past the slander, we will be able to choose the candidate that will best serve our interests. 

Edited by Esmé Graziani

Yulina Goto

Yulina Goto (she/her) is a Japanese undergraduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She is Japanese and grew up in the US, Japan, Denmark, and Taiwan. In her free time, she...