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.”