The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning

The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning


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Turn on the television or sign in to social media during election season and chances are you’ll see plenty of negative campaigning. For decades, conventional wisdom has held that Americans hate negativity in political advertising, and some have even argued that its pervasiveness in recent seasons has helped to drive down voter turnout. Arguing against this commonly held view, Kyle Mattes and David P. Redlawsk show not only that some negativity is accepted by voters as part of the political process, but that negative advertising is necessary to convey valuable information that would not otherwise be revealed.

The most comprehensive treatment of negative campaigning to date, The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning uses models, surveys, and experiments to show that much of the seeming dislike of negative campaigning can be explained by the way survey questions have been worded. By failing to distinguish between baseless and credible attacks, surveys fail to capture differences in voters’ receptivity. Voters’ responses, the authors argue, vary greatly and can be better explained by the content and believability of the ads than by whether the ads are negative. Mattes and Redlawsk continue on to establish how voters make use of negative information and why it is necessary. Many voters are politically naïve and unlikely to make inferences about candidates’ positions or traits, so the ability of candidates to go on the attack and focus explicitly on information that would not otherwise be available is crucial to voter education.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226202167
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/03/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Kyle Mattes is assistant professor of political science at the University of Iowa. David P. Redlawsk is professor of political science at the Eagleton Institute’s Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. He is coauthor of several books, including Why Iowa?, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning

By Kyle Mattes, David P. Redlawsk

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-20233-4



Finally, as regards the Roman masses, be sure to put on a good show.... It also wouldn't hurt to remind them of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves. —Quintus Tullius Cicero

The psyche of the American voter is fragile. If we listen to many scholars and pundits discuss campaign conduct, this must be our inevitable conclusion. Apparently, voters' psyches have been (or will be) damaged irreparably by the onslaught of negativity in recent political campaigns, and so they must be protected from it. If so, voters have been slow to evolve since they have needed to defend themselves against negativity for most of America's electoral history, and probably for as long as there have been elections. The quotation that opens this chapter is from Quintus Tullius Cicero, in a letter to his brother Marcus on the occasion of the latter's campaign for consul of Rome in 64 BCE. While Quintus spends much of the letter talking about schmoozing the various interest groups that would decide the election, he also emphatically details the faults of Marcus's opponents and urges his brother to make sure all voters are aware of them.

Fast forward to one of America's earliest presidential elections. Running for re-election in 1800, John Adams was called a "hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman" by Thomas Jefferson's supporters (Cummins 2007). Adams's camp attacked with similar furor. They suggested that if Jefferson won, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes" (Scher 1997, 31). The simple fact is that when zerosum elections result in winners and losers—as they always must—the candidates have a strong incentive to do whatever it takes to win the day. If this means tearing down the opponent while causing voters to become cynical about politics and about campaigns, so be it. Despite would-be reformers' well-intentioned attempts to protect voters through campaign pledges, clean election laws, and their general approbation of attack politics, candidates and their consultants continue to pummel each other as they have since the beginning. Perhaps political campaigns by their nature bring out the worst in candidates and their followers.

While negativity in campaigns is nothing new, there is some evidence that it has become more ubiquitous in recent years, with many scholars arguing the increasing volume of political attacks has deleterious consequences, blaming it for generating cynicism toward politics (e.g., Capella and Jamieson 1997; Dionne 1991), perpetuating a decline in campaign discourse (Jamieson 1992), and demobilization (Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995b). Researchers generally agree that voters have an intense dislike of negativity in election campaigns, and the evidence of this disdain appears extensive. For instance, a 2004 survey by Pew found that "negative campaigning" bothered 61 percent of respondents "very much" and another 20 percent "somewhat." In a July 2000 Gallup Poll, 60 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "Negative advertisements make people feel less like voting on Election Day." And again in 2000, 61 percent of voters said negative ads are "usually full of lies and try to mislead people." Results like these have led to a clear consensus that voters hate negative campaigning, to the point that researchers no longer routinely ask these questions.

As a result of these voter reactions, most discussions of campaign conduct begin with the assumption that negativity is inherently undesirable. Twenty years ago, West (1993) called negative television advertising "the electronic equivalent of the plague." More recently, Patterson (2002) noted that "negative politics appears to wear some people down to the point where they simply want less of politics. Our surveys," he argues, "indicate that a cumulative effect of negative politics, campaign after campaign, is reduced interest in [elections]." Even leaders of the Anglican Church have weighed in against negative campaigning (Watt 2001). Things have apparently not improved since, as Fowler and Ridout (2013) recently described in a paper entitled "Negative, Angry, and Ubiquitous." They write, "Advertising in 2012 was also extremely negative, especially at the presidential level, and frequently evoked the emotion of anger," adding that "whether the negativity will abate in the next presidential election" is an open question. This last point reinforces the idea that "negativity is bad" which is so prevalent in our discourse. But nobody seems to wonder if the positivity will abate.

Meanwhile, political candidates who are the perpetrators of negativity routinely state their opposition to it. Examples abound. Kathleen Brown, in the 1994 California gubernatorial race, ran an ad imploring all candidates to sign her proposal to "run a different kind of campaign. No negative ads bashing your opponent, but instead an election about the issues." During the Senate debate on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 1997, Sen. John McCain argued that attack ads "do little to further beneficial debate and healthy political dialogue" and that "no one benefits from negative ads." In the same debate, Sen. Dick Durbin said political advertising "has become so negative, so nasty, so dirty, that people are disgusted with it." More recently, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, running for the 2012 Republican nomination for president, claimed that his opponent "Mitt Romney and his Super PAC have spent a staggering $20 million brutally attacking fellow Republicans" and that the "ugly attacks are going to backfire." In the same campaign season, Newark, New Jersey, mayor Cory Booker, commenting on Barack Obama's attacks on Romney, called such ads "nauseating"—all the more ironic since he was on the show as an Obama surrogate. Buchanan (2000) sums up this perspective by arguing that candidates "should emphasize their own plans and qualifications and strike tones much more likely to inspire than alienate." Moreover, at least some research suggests rebound effects, where the perpetrator of the negativity appears to lose ground rather than the intended target.

Of course most people pay little attention to scholars, and they probably assume candidates are not being entirely forthcoming in their condemnation of negativity. But pundits, especially televised ones, have a broad audience. And they, too, seem to simply assume negativity is bad. David Brooks argued that for the Obama campaign "to start negative ... seems to be self-destructive" because voters would no longer admire him. Phillips's (2012) article in the Huffington Post, "How Negative Political Campaigning Is Crippling America," paints a grim picture of the 2012 campaign. "Mitt Romney has used personal appearances as opportunities to tear down the Obama administration," he laments. "When candidates use negative advertising, we see it as unfair. They are competing not by trumpeting their own merits but by undermining their competition." Other condemnations include Avlon (2012), who referred to the negative ads from the 2012 Florida Republican primary as a "tsunami of sleaze," and Karl (2012) of ABC News, who noted that "Mitt Romney and his allies spent more than $15 million on TV ads—only one was positive and it was in a foreign language," sardonically calling it "the statistic of the campaign."

Dangerous or not, negative campaigning has a long pedigree in politics. But what may be different in modern times is that claims about opponents are more easily spread (via electronic media and the Internet) and are thus more visible to the public. There is also good evidence that the amount of negativity in political advertising has increased over time (Fowler and Ridout 2013; Geer 2012a; Jamieson, Waldman, and Sherr 2000; Kaid and Johnston 2001). Whether it is to alert voters to negative attributes of the opponent, or simply an attempt to distract from one's own limitations, negativity is clearly an important part of the politician's campaign arsenal. Candidates no longer face the question of whether to "go negative" but, instead, how much negative advertising to use. For example, citing the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, a US News and World Report article reported that during the final weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign, 100 percent of McCain's advertising was negative, as compared to 34 percent of Obama's (Halloran 2008). In 2012 Obama's early attacks on Romney were credited with (or accused of, depending on one's perspective) defining Romney as an out-of-touch, rich plutocrat, a definition from which Romney was supposedly unable to recover. Given the history of campaigning in America, and despite many efforts to put an end to it, candidates will almost certainly continue to run negative advertisements and paint nasty pictures of their opponents. And they will do this despite the apparent distaste of the public and the hue and cry of a wide range of observers.

Why? For one, psychology tells us that negativity is inherently attention getting (Pratto and John 1991) and often more memorable than positivity (Lau 1985); in general, impressions formed on the basis of negative information tend to be weighted more heavily (Cacioppo and Gardner 1999; Cobb and Kuklinski 1997; Fiske 1980; Hamilton and Zanna 1972). Negativity factors into voters' decisions (Fiorina and Shepsle 1989; Holbrook et al. 2001; Kernell 1977; Lau 1982) and impacts evaluations in important but complicated ways (Redlawsk, Civettini, and Emmerson 2010). Hence using negativity may not only assure more attention from voters in an otherwise crowded advertising environment, but also result in voters becoming more likely to incorporate the negative information into their evaluations.

And yet, voters insist they are negative about negativity, suggesting a high likelihood they might punish candidates who resort to attack politics. Certainly voters themselves think negativity can create a backlash, as 70 percent of respondents in a 2000 survey agreed that "negative campaigning hurts a candidate's chance to win" an election. Since politicians are driven to make campaign decisions on the basis of what they think will win the election, we would expect campaign consultants to take notice of voters' distaste and adjust their tactics to use less, not more, negativity. But, of course, they have not done so. While nearly every campaign features "positive" advertisements, as candidates introduce themselves and present the image they want the public to adopt, it seems evident that in most competitive campaigns politicians also decide that negative advertising is more likely than not to pay off.

To be fair, a number of scholars have advanced revisionist perspectives that do not paint so grim a picture. In particular, scholars who focus specifically on negativity seem less concerned than many of the observers we cited above. A pair of meta-analyses of over 100 negativity studies suggests that negative campaigns do not have the kind of antidemocratic effects many ascribe to them (Lau et al. 1999; Lau, Sigelman, and Rovner 2007) and that, in reality, their effects cannot be generalized across campaigns. Others, like Kahn and Kenney (1999), suggest that the negative effects are conditional and, in fact, some evidence suggests that negativity even mobilizes voters under certain conditions (Brooks and Geer 2007; Jackson and Carsey 2007). Among political scientists who study campaigns—especially those who specifically study negative campaigning—there is much skepticism about the apparent conventional wisdom that negative campaigning is destructive.

But for the most part these views are not widespread, leaving us somewhat puzzled about why campaigns would make ubiquitous use of a technique so roundly condemned. What is the reason for this discrepancy? Either the surveys that ask voters about negative campaigns are not really tapping their true feelings, or the political strategists are getting it wrong. Given the significant incentive for political campaigns to use strategies that work and to abandon those that do not, it seems worth investigating the extent to which our assumptions about voters and negativity are incorrect. There is little in the way of extant theory to explain the apparent paradox that candidates continue to rely on a strategy voters claim to dislike and may punish. We know that when voters are asked about negative campaigning they react negatively; we do not know if they really mean it. When asked about something that is supposed to be condemned, voters are likely to condemn it. When asked about it differently, as we will show, they are less concerned and instead may even recognize the informational value of negative campaigning.

Negative Advertising and Information

What does it mean to "go negative"? The standard political science definition uses "talking about the opponent" (Lau et al. 1999) as the key feature that makes an ad negative. It is, of course, not really that simple, since many negative television ads are also identifiable by their typical use of ominous music, dark images, and scary language (Brader 2006) and those who study the question closely are usually somewhat more nuanced than this simple definition. Negative ads can certainly be delivered other than by television, including radio, mail, and, more recently, social media. But however they are delivered and whatever their ancillary content, at their core they are meant as a message about the opponent. Often, those messages are informative in the sense that few if any candidates will offer up negative information about themselves, so negative ads have the potential to inject into the political environment information that otherwise would be unlikely to be part of the debate.

Geer (2006) develops both normative and empirical arguments for the informational benefits of negativity, showing that negative advertisements generally provide valuable data for voters, data that would otherwise never enter the political arena (see also Niven 2006). After all, since the candidates are unlikely to criticize themselves, campaigns constrained to be only "positive" might well limit voter access to important diagnostic information. Moreover, Geer also shows that so-called positive ads are less useful and less scrutinized because they contain limited informational content. In perhaps an ironic twist, the elimination of negativity would not mean that positive ads would follow a straight and narrow path. In fact, positive ads could become more aggrandizing—in product advertising it is called "puffery"—and without the ability to attack an opponent, voters would have no contrasting information to challenge inevitably exaggerated "positive" claims.

Even so, and in contrast to our argument, a July 2000 Gallup Poll found only 24 percent of voters agreed that "generally speaking, negative advertisements help me learn about the candidates." Perhaps voters are for the most part inured to negativity. But there is scant evidence for that here. Like these voters, many scholars and pundits tend to discount or ignore the positive informational effects of negative advertising, largely because of their assessments about the public's disdain for it. Those wishing to scrub campaigns clean of attack politics begin with negative assumptions about negativity. Given the nearly unanimous belief that negativity is inherently bad, dissenters have been compelled to react defensively. For instance, Mayer (1996) wrote a pronegativity essay called "In Defense of Negative Campaigning," and ten years later Geer titled his book In Defense of Negativity (2006).

On the whole we are sympathetic toward attempts to defend the apparently indefensible and find the arguments and evidence quite persuasive. But we have one very significant disagreement: the limited efforts to place negative campaigning into a more acceptable light remain grounded in the idea that negativity is something to fear. Geer, a staunch defender, nonetheless admits that "there is little doubt from public survey data that the public does not like negative campaigning" (2006, 137). He consequently must defend negativity against concerns that politics may be at risk because if voters hate negativity, increasing and pervasive negativity might lead voters to distrust politics and government, to say a pox on all their houses, and to become cynical. But we are not so sure that voters are all that fragile, that they are led into a state of cynical withdrawal simply because candidates go negative. In fact, given the many other political factors that can drive the public's cynicism, such as the extensive role played by shadowy organizations pouring money into campaigns since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, or a completely deadlocked Congress that receives favorability ratings lower than used car salesmen, the idea that voters are uniquely damaged by negative campaigns seems unlikely.


Excerpted from The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning by Kyle Mattes, David P. Redlawsk. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Chapter 1 Introduction 1

Chapter 2 Voters and Negativity, and Why the Media Can't Help Stefan Mancevski 24

Chapter 3 What Do Voters Think? Social Desirability and Attitudes about Negativity 50

Chapter 4 Examining Voter Response to Real Campaign Ads 71

Chapter 5 Modeling Negativity 100

Chapter 6 That Ad Said What? The Importance of Ad Credibility 134

Chapter 7 How the Possibility of Lies Damages Voter Confidence in Negativity 171

Chapter 8 Conclusion 197

Appendix A Details of Video Ads Used in Study 4 205

Appendix B Appendix to Chapter 5 214

Notes 223

References 235

Index 251

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