Expert Commentary

Variability in citizens’ reactions to different types of negative campaigns

A 2011 study in the American Journal of Political Science on the effectiveness of negative campaign tactics.

How do negative campaigns affect voters? It’s a question political scientists have studied for decades.

A touchstone 2007 metastudy published in The Journal of Politics notes that while there are commonplace anecdotes about the effectiveness of “going negative,” there are many counterexamples as well. “There is no consistent evidence in the research literature that negative political campaigning ‘works,’ ” the authors note. “Although attacks probably do undermine evaluations of the candidates they target, they usually bring evaluations of the attackers down even more, and the net effect on vote choice is nil.”

A 2011 study from Arizona State University published in the American Journal of Political Science, “Variability in Citizens’ Reactions to Different Types of Negative Campaigns,” analyzes how campaign ads’ relevance and level of incivility influenced citzens’ impressions of candidates and whether voters’ tolerance of negative campaigns altered message effectiveness. For the study, the researchers surveyed more than 1,000 voters across 21 Senate races during the 2006 Congressional elections.

The study’s findings include:

  • Fifty-three percent of the negative advertisements were coded as civil, while 47% were uncivil. While 88% of the ads contained relevant content (meaning voters found it pertinent to their daily lives), previous scholarship has found that “this is not surprising given that campaign managers and insiders have argued that attacks need to resonate with voters’ concerns and worries.”
  • Voters’ tolerance for negative campaigns and political rhetoric depends on individual characteristics: Those with a strong party affiliation and a deep interest in the campaign tend to be more tolerant and their impressions of candidates were not as deeply influenced by negativity. Men are more tolerant than women of negative content, while older respondents are less tolerant.
  • Overall, “people who do not like uncivil and irrelevant discourse in negative communication are more responsive to the variation in the content and tone of negative commercials. These messages directly influence their assessments of incumbents and challengers. This finding stands in stark contrast to those people who are unperturbed by messages presented in an uncivil manner.”
  • “When incumbents stray away from relevant messages and produce and disseminate irrelevant and uncivil messages, citizens react by lowering their evaluations of these incumbents. Challengers, on the other hand, do not face as fierce a backlash from potential voters.”
  • Three variables — relevance of message, degree of civility and the tolerance level of the voter — interact in complex ways and determine whether or not negative campaigns “work.” In other words, there is no simple, universal answer: In some cases negative campaigns can have substantial effects on voter impressions; in others, the effect is negligible.

The authors conclude that “while the present article focuses on evaluations of candidates, we think that the relevance and civility of negative messages — and people’s tolerance for these messages — may also contribute to the resolution of the ongoing debate regarding the (de)mobilizing effect of negative campaigning. Embracing the variance in the content and tone of messages may help explain whether negative messages enhance or depress turnout. We expect that not all negative messages will demobilize citizens.”

Tags: elections, presidential primary, campaigns and media, campaign ads

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