Expert Commentary

A negativity gap? Gender, attack politics and voting in U.S. elections

2010 study from Dartmouth College published in Politics & Genderon the different effects negative campaigns have on men and women.

While most political candidates in the United States claim they don’t like to “go negative” in a campaign, the conventional wisdom is that doing so works. Academic research on the subject is mixed, however. Some studies suggest that political attacks both mobilize and deter voters, while others question the effectiveness of ads that target specific groups and demographics.

A 2010 paper from Dartmouth College published in Politics & Gender, “A Negativity Gap? Voter Gender, Attack Politics and Participation in American Elections,” adds to the research literature on campaign message tactics. The study analyzes National Election Survey results and comprehensive data on negative ads run in the Senate races of 1994, 1998 and 2002; this analysis is supplemented with experimental data on the abilities of men and women to differentiate between civil and uncivil messages.

The study’s findings include:

  • Men are more likely to be motivated to vote by a negative campaign message. Highly negative campaigns saw the “biggest gender differences: an 88% probability of voting for men and just a 77% probability of voting for women.” In contests with the least amount of negative campaigning, “women are slightly higher than men in terms of predicted probability of going to the polls.”
  • There is a further distinction between “civil” versus “uncivil” (“inflammatory, gratuitous, and divisive”) negative messaging. Comparing men’s and women’s reactions along these lines reveals further gender gaps: “Men are disproportionately mobilized by uncivil negativity as compared to women [and] women appear to be slightly more likely than men to vote after viewing civil negative messages.”
  • After viewing uncivil negative ads, only 9% of men said they would definitely not vote, while 21% of women said they would not.
  • A breakdown by party affiliation shows few significant distinctions between women of either major party. However, “male independents and male Democrats are heavily mobilized by the most uncivil messages, while female independents may be slightly demobilized by incivility.”
  • “If a Republican candidate is known to have relatively high crossover appeal for independent and Democratic men such that higher male turnout will benefit that candidate, then incivility is likely to benefit that candidate by increasing male turnout. Incivility may also slightly decrease independent female turnout, which might have beneficial effects for the Republican candidate, depending on the particular dynamics of the race.”

The study concludes: “These findings do not suggest that women are mobilized only by positive messages, nor do they suggest that women are averse to tough campaigning. Women are not demobilized at all by negative messages that are delivered in a civil manner; in fact, such messages are as mobilizing for women as are positive messages. It is only when gratuitous insults are involved in campaigns that the turnout of men increases significantly relative to women.”

Tags: elections, presidency, presidential primary, gender, campaigns and media

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