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Do voters perceive negative campaigns as informative campaigns?


Campaign observers and citizens often complain about the effects of negative ads and their perceived damage to deliberative democracy. But the reality may be more complicated, and the true results of such ads may depend on more than just their emotional or critical tone.

A 2010 study published in American Politics Research, “Do Voters Perceive Negative Campaigns as Informative Campaigns?” analyzes opinion survey and advertising data from the 2000 presidential campaign and two 1998 gubernatorial races. The researchers, based at George Washington University, CUNY-Queens College, and Michigan State University, sought to understand the relationship between negative advertising and whether voters perceived the campaigns to be a source of reliable information. They coded claims within campaign ads as positive or negative, and then correlated that analysis with surveys that had asked voters in those elections to assess whether each candidate’s campaign had provided useful information and the degree to which it was negative.

The study’s findings include:

  • Voters tend to separate a campaign ad’s tone from whether they believe it to be informative: many voters will (correctly) perceive a campaign as negative but will also believe that it is providing truthful information. “These dimensions appear to be separate constructs in citizens’ minds.”
  • Voters can accurately perceive whether a campaign is negative, and such judgment is not just a matter of which candidate they prefer. “Public perceptions of negativity do in fact respond to reality.”
  • The degree of a campaign’s negativity as reflected in advertising has little bearing on whether voters believe it is informative. “There was no relationship between the volume of negative appeals and beliefs about whether the candidates were providing useful information or discussing policy issues.”

The findings suggest that “citizens make distinctions between helpful and unhelpful negative campaigning,” the authors conclude. Some negative campaigns will turn voters off, and some negative campaigns will win voters’ interest: “Thus, it makes sense that negative campaigning does not consistently produce alienation or lower turnout, or, for that matter, enthusiasm or higher turnout.” Overall, the scholars write, “our results also advise against categorical judgments for or against negative campaigning. Citizens may often express grievances about negativity in campaigns but these off-the-cuff complaints conceal a more nuanced evaluation of campaign conduct.”

Tags: presidency

    Writer: | Last updated: February 14, 2012

    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related CNN column "Why Negative Political Ads Still Work."

    1. What are some of the key aspects of campaign advertising that the study and column highlight? What insights should reporters keep in mind as they cover campaigns?

    Read the full American Politics Research study “Do Voters Perceive Negative Campaigns as Informative Campaigns?”

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.


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    Do Negative Campaign Ads Sway Pittsburgh Voters? | The New Wave Nov 29, 2012 15:39

    […] A study done by scholars at Washington University, CUNY-Queens College, and Michigan Stage University in 2010 show that “the relationship between negative advertising and whether voters perceived the campaigns to be a source of reliable information” is an interesting spectacle.  The researchers came to a couple of discoveries that are as follows: the voters watching a political ad will know when it is deliberately negative but also believe that it is truthful, and that voters will find any ad informative, no matter how negative it may be.  These findings can answer the question of the audience becoming confused between a truthful ad and it being informative as well.  Voters can distinguish a negative ad from something that is informative and vital to an election. […]

    Surprise: Liberals Decry Use of Negative Ads - Akins Campaign Strategy Feb 16, 2013 9:57

    […] are, however, a few caveats: in order to be effective and viewed as fair by the voters the information must be recent, salient to the race and the […]

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