04/26/2012 02:43 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

A Student Perspective: Toning Down the Negative Political Rhetoric

A requirement in my Politics and Media class at the University of Delaware is that students write blogs on current issues and relate them to class content. As outlined in a previous blog, I'm posting some of their work as part of the "Blog Blog Project." This entry, written by UD student Chris Meidanis, examines the dynamics of volatile campaign rhetoric in the GOP race to the presidency.

Now that Rick Santorum has suspended his campaign for the Republican nomination, conventional wisdom says that he'll soon publicly throw his support behind Mitt Romney, who has a firm grasp on the GOP contest. It will be an interesting switch for Santorum, who only several weeks ago called Romney "a weak candidate" and claimed that the former governor of Massachusetts is a "flip-flopper" with no convictions. This type of about-face is common in American politics. In 2008, Romney endorsed his rival John McCain after he dropped out of the race, and McCain returned the favor this year by publicly declaring his support for Romney. Also in 2008, a long and heated primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ended with a Clinton endorsement for Obama and a spot in the President's cabinet for Clinton. However, the negative rhetoric that has come to define American politics seems to have rendered the expected endorsement of Romney by Santorum more out of place in this election cycle than in the past. While the politicians are to blame for the regrettable words they choose to use on the campaign trail, it doesn't help that the media constantly emphasize these statements.

One of our recent class discussions focused on media framing, which is the central organizing idea for content in a story. The frame suggests what the story actually is, giving the media the power to decide what is included, what is emphasized, what is excluded and what piece of the story continues to be elaborated on over time. Exclusion and elaboration are the most important in regards to negative rhetoric in politics. When Santorum called Romney "the worst Republican in the country," political pundits repeated that statement for days. This is an example of an episodic frame, which focuses on a single snapshot of an event without considering the context of the situation or the rest of the story. Few media outlets reported anything else Santorum said that day, ignoring statements he may have made about policies or important issues. Future stories continued to focus on Santorum's statement, and he was forced to explain himself and elaborate, leading to an outburst on a reporter who just wanted to know what the former Senator meant.

Of course, politicians wouldn't have to explain their negative attacks on opponents if they just toned down the rhetoric. The political culture in the United States makes negative statements commonplace, promoting an "if we disagree, then you're wrong" mentality. Negative statements raise questions as to whether politicians use certain words because they actually believe what they are saying or because they're just trying to win an election. For example, did Santorum really think Romney is the "worst Republican in the country," or was he just trying to nudge some undecided voters in his direction? Both Democratic and Republican politicians have constantly criticized Romney for saying and doing anything to get elected. But this is something every politician is guilty of. They say terrible things about their opponent because they believe it will help them win an election. They make negative and often exaggerated or untrue statements, elaborate on those statements by criticizing their opponent even more, and then repeat the process with some harsher words the next day. And when it's all said and done, and the candidate is no longer in the running, they turn around and endorse the person they've waged war against for the past year. Is there any bigger "flip-flop" than that?

What do you think? Will Santorum endorse Romney?