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Negative political ads and their effect on voters: Updated collection of research


(Unsplash/public domain)

Many people have a visceral reaction to political attack ads on TV: Not much will prompt a faster change of the channel. But they are difficult to escape during election season and the 2016 presidential election season won’t be much different. Political ads became much more negative over the course of the 2012 presidential campaign. Erika Franklin Fowler, an assistant professor of government, has noted that 2012 may be remembered for its record-setting negativity. Fowler directs the Wesleyan Media Project, which monitors and analyzes televised campaign ads and found that three-quarters of ads aired during the last presidential race “appealed to anger.”

The 2016 presidential election already has become a nasty one, however. A September 2016 report from the Wesleyan Media Project shows that 53 percent of ads that aired over the previous month were negative — compared to 48 percent of ads that ran during a comparable period of the 2012 campaign. The report notes that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have taken different approaches with their advertising: “Just over 60 percent of Clinton’s ads have attacked Trump while 31 percent have been positive, focusing on Clinton. Trump, on the other hand, has by and large used contrast ads, which both promote himself and attack Clinton. He has aired no positive ads.”

Journalists writing about the 2016 race can find a searchable and shareable archive of 2016 primary election ads through the Political TV Ad Archive, an initiative funded by a Knight News Challenge grant.

The Wesleyan Media Project compiled the following chart to show how political advertising has become distinctly more negative over the past few election cycles:


In a May 2013 post for “The Monkey Cage,” a leading political science blog, John Sides of George Washington and Lynn Vavreck of UCLA summarize their research on the 2012 campaign. With regard to advertising, they conclude that ads mattered but only in “very circumscribed ways” and the “effect of ads appeared to decay quickly.” Further, they assert that “back-loading — airing ads close to the election — was actually more effective than front-loading — airing ads early in the campaign — if the goal was to influence voters on Election Day.”

Of course, the apparent rising volume and intensity of negative ads may reflect legal changes in how campaigns are funded in a post-Citizens United landscape. A related 2013 study in The Forum by Michael Franz of Bowdoin, “Interest Groups in Electoral Politics: 2012 in Context,” provides additional analysis and data relating to the role of outside groups in the most recent ad wars. In another May 2013 post for “The Monkey Cage,” Franz examines data suggesting that the type and potentially lower quality of ads by outside groups may have played a role in the election. The Romney campaign’s “reliance on outside spending put a significant burden on those groups to produce and air ads that could resonate with voters. They may have done so — we need more research on this — but they may have also produced ads that were far less effective at mobilizing or persuading voters.”

From a historical perspective, it is worth considering, too, that increased news media focus on negative advertising itself has helped accelerate this trend, creating a vicious cycle of attack politics driven by political consultants and journalists.

With its FlackCheck.org site, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania aims to help the public recognize flaws in arguments, including those made in political ads. See some of the typical video techniques of political deception and misdirection:

Political scientists have long been studying the effects of negative ad campaigns on voter opinion, and many analysts focused on how campaign 2012 was affected. But scholars have complicated the simplistic view that negative ads “work” as a general rule. During the 2012 campaign, the Washington Post wrote about five commonly held “myths” about campaign ads, while the New York Times analyzed the specific circumstances when ads matter and their design and effects. At a deeper level, such ads may work to both “shrink and polarize the electorate,” as the political scientists Shanto Iyengar of Stanford and Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard have long pointed out.

Aggregated below are some of the more recent and/or influential academic studies on the topic:


“Attacks Without Consequence? Candidates, Parties, Groups, and the Changing Face of Negative Advertising”
Dowling, Conor M.; Wichowsky, Amber. American Journal of Political Science, 2015, Vol. 59. doi: 10.1111/ajps.12094.

Abstract: “Prior work finds that voters punish candidates for sponsoring attack ads. What remains unknown is the extent to which a negative ad is more effective if it is sponsored by a party or an independent group instead. We conducted three experiments in which we randomly assigned participants to view a negative ad that was identical except for its sponsor. We find that candidates can benefit from having a party or group ‘do their dirty work,’ but particularly if a group does, and that the most likely explanation for why this is the case is that many voters simply do not connect candidates to the ads sponsored by parties and groups. We also find that in some circumstances, a group-sponsored attack ad produces less polarization than one sponsored by a party. We conclude by discussing the implications our research has for current debates about the proper role of independent groups in electoral politics.”


“Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire: How Fact-Checking Influences Citizens’ Reactions to Negative Advertising”
Fridkin, Kim; Kenney, Patrick J.; Wintersieck, Amanda. Political Communication, 2015, Vol. 32. doi: 10.1080/10584609.2014.914613.

Abstract: “Electoral campaigns are dynamic and an important change in recent elections is the growth of fact-checking; the assessment of the truthfulness of political advertisements by news media organizations and watchdog groups. In this article, we examine the role that fact-checks play in shaping citizens’ views of negative commercials and political candidates. We rely on an Internet survey experiment where we vary people’s exposure to negative advertisements and a follow-up fact-check article (i.e., no fact-check, accurate fact-check, inaccurate fact-check). The results of our experiment show that fact-checks influence people’s assessments of the accuracy, usefulness, and tone of negative political ads. Furthermore, sophisticated citizens and citizens with low tolerance for negative campaigning are most responsive to fact-checks. The fact-checks also sway citizens’ likelihood of accepting the claims made in the advertisements. Finally, negative fact-checks (e.g., fact-checks challenging the truthfulness of the claims of the negative commercial) are more powerful than positive fact-checks.”


“Gender Differences in Reactions to Fact Checking of Negative Commercials”
Fridkin, Kim L.; Courey, Jillian; Hernandez, Samatha; Spears, Joshua. Politics & Gender, June 2016, Vol. 12. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1743923X16000076.

Summary: This study from researchers at Arizona State University suggests that fact checking can reduce the impact of negative advertising but that men and women differ in their receptivity to fact checking. “Women are likely to view negative commercials as less useful and less accurate when they are exposed to a fact check challenging the facts presented in an attack advertisement. Perhaps more importantly, women are also less likely to believe the claims in negative commercials when they view a fact check challenging the advertisement’s claims. Men, in contrast, are less likely to be influenced by fact checks refuting the assertions made in a negative commercial.”


“Going Positive: The Effects of Negative and Positive Advertising on Candidate Success and Voter Turnout”
Malloy, Liam C; Pearson-Merkowitz, Shanna. Research and Politics, January-March 2016. doi: 10.1177/2053168015625078.

Abstract: “Given the depth of research on negative advertising in campaigns, scholars have wondered why candidates continue to attack their opponents. We build on this research by considering real-world campaign contexts in which candidates are working in competition with each other and have to react to the decisions of the opposing campaign. Our results suggest that it is never efficacious for candidates to run attack ads, but running positive ads can increase a candidate’s margin of victory. These results are conditioned by two factors: candidates must both stay positive and out-advertise their opponent. Second, the effects of positive advertising are strongest in areas where the candidate is losing or winning by a large margin — areas where they might be tempted to not advertise at all.”


“Who’s Afraid of Conflict? The Mobilizing Effect of Conflict Framing in Campaign News”
Schuck, Andreas R.T.; Vliegenthart, Rens; De Vreese, Claes H. British Journal of Political Science, January 2016, Vol. 46. doi: 10.1017/S0007123413000525.

Abstract: “The ability of the news media to mobilize voters during an election campaign is not well understood. Most extant research has been conducted in single-country studies and has paid little or no attention to the contextual level and the conditions under which such effects are more or less likely to occur. This study tests the mobilizing effect of conflict news framing in the context of the 2009 European Parliamentary elections. The unique multi-method and comparative cross-national study design combines a media content analysis (N = 48,982) with data from a two-wave panel survey conducted in twenty-one countries (N = 32,411). Consistent with expectations, conflict framing in campaign news mobilized voters to vote. Since the effect of conflict news was moderated by evaluations of the EU polity in the general information environment, conflict framing more effectively mobilized voters in countries where the EU was evaluated more positively.”


“Seeing Spots: An Experimental Examination of Voter Appetite for Partisan and Negative Campaign Ads”
Henderson, John A.; Theodoridis, Alexander G. July 2015. SSRN-id2629915.

Abstract:  “We utilize a novel experimental design to assess voter selectivity to political advertising. We randomly expose respondents to comparable positive or negative ads aired by Democratic or Republican candidates from the 2012 Presidential race and the 2013 Virginia Gubernatorial contest. The experiment closely mirrors real consumption of campaign information by allowing subjects to skip ads after five seconds, re-watch and share ads with friends. Using these measures of ad-seeking behavior, we find little evidence that negativity influences self-exposure to election advertising. We find partisans disproportionately tune out ads aired by their party’s opponents, though this behavior is asymmetric: Republican-identifiers are more consistent screeners of partisan ads than Democrats. The results advance our understanding of selectivity, showing that party source, and not ad tone, interacts with partisanship to mediate campaign exposure. The findings have important implications about the role self-exposure to information plays in campaigns and elections in a post-broadcast era.”


“The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment”
Lau, Richard R.; Sigelman, Lee; Rovner, Ivy Brown. Journal of Politics, 2007, Vol. 69, Issue 4, 1176-1209. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00618.x.

Abstract: “The conventional wisdom about negative political campaigning holds that it works, i.e., it has the consequences its practitioners intend. Many observers also fear that negative campaigning has unintended but detrimental effects on the political system itself. An earlier meta-analytic assessment of the relevant literature found no reliable evidence for these claims, but since then the research literature has more than doubled in size and has greatly improved in quality. We reexamine this literature and find that the major conclusions from the earlier meta-analysis still hold. All told, the research literature does not bear out the idea that negative campaigning is an effective means of winning votes, even though it tends to be more memorable and stimulate knowledge about the campaign. Nor is there any reliable evidence that negative campaigning depresses voter turnout, though it does slightly lower feelings of political efficacy, trust in government and possibly overall public mood.”


“A Framework for Dynamic Causal Inference in Political Science”
Blackwell, Matthew. American Journal of Political Science, April 2013, Vol. 57. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2012.00626.x.

Abstract: “Dynamic strategies are an essential part of politics. In the context of campaigns, for example, candidates continuously recalibrate their campaign strategy in response to polls and opponent actions. Traditional causal inference methods, however, assume that these dynamic decisions are made all at once, an assumption that forces a choice between omitted variable bias and post-treatment bias. Thus, these kinds of ‘single-shot’ causal inference methods are inappropriate for dynamic processes like campaigns. I resolve this dilemma by adapting models from biostatistics to estimate the effectiveness of an inherently dynamic process: a candidate’s decision to ‘go negative.'” To simplify the analysis, the study looked only at Democratic candidates in U.S. Senate and Gubernatorial elections from 2002 to 2006. It found that, in contrast to earlier research, that negative advertising could be an effective strategy for challengers, while incumbents were hurt by going negative.


“Messages that Mobilize? Issue Publics and the Content of Campaign Advertising”
Sides, John; Karch, Andrew. The Journal of Politics, April 2008, Vol. 70, Issue 2, 466-476.

Findings: Targeted campaign ads appear to have only a small measurable effect on groups: “In three election years, we found no consistent evidence that messages related to Social Security and Medicare were associated with higher turnout among seniors or that messages related to veterans were associated with higher turnout among veterans.” Groups such as parents did seem to be mobilized by targeted ads, but the effects may be so small as to be extraordinarily expensive to exploit, with diminishing returns. In one media market, it took more than 4,000 ads to make turnout just 6.4% more likely among parents; in a more lightly advertised market, just 322 spots resulted in a 3.8% increased likelihood in turnout. This means that to achieve a further 2.6 percentage points in likely turnout, the “number of newly mobilized parents yields a cost-per-vote of $282. This is roughly 15 times the average cost-per-vote of door-to-door get-out-the-vote efforts.” Because targeted ads appear to have limited effectiveness, they don’t exacerbate differences in turnout rates between groups. “The participatory tendencies of senior citizens and veterans do not increase when campaigns focus on entitlements and veterans’ benefits, respectively.”


“Variability in Citizens’ Reactions to Different Types of Negative Campaigns”
Fridkin, Kim L.; Kenney, Patrick. American Journal of Political Science, 2011, Vol. 55, Issue 2, 307-325. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00494.x.

Findings: 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.” 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 Implicit and Explicit Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: Is the Source Really Blamed?”
Carraro, Luciana; Castelli, Luigi. Political Psychology, August 2010, Vol. 31, Issue 4, 617-645. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00771.x.

Abstract: “Despite the widespread use of negative campaigns, research has not yet provided unambiguous conclusions about their effects. So far studies, however, have mainly focused on very explicit measures. The main goal of the present work was to explore the effects of different types of negative campaigns on both implicit and explicit attitudes, as well as in relation to two basic dimensions of social perception, namely competence and warmth. Across a series of three studies, we basically showed that not all negative campaigns lead to the same consequences. Specifically, especially personal attacks toward the opposing candidate may backfire at the explicit level…. Overall, it appeared that negative messages decreased the perceived warmth of the source while simultaneously increasing the perceived competence. Results are discussed by focusing on the importance of implicit measures in political psychology and on the crucial role of perceived competence.”


“Do Voters Perceive Negative Campaigns as Informative Campaigns?”
Sides, John; Lipsitz, Keena; Grossman, Matthew. American Politics Research, 2010, Vol. 38, No. 3, 502-530. doi: 10.1177/1532673X09336832.

Findings: 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.”


“Comparing Negative and Positive Campaign Messages: Evidence From Two Field Experiments”
Arceneaux, Kevin; Nickerson, David W. American Politics Research, January 2010, Vol. 38, No. 1, 54-83. doi: 10.1177/1532673X09331613.

Abstract: “Considerable research indicates that personal contact from political campaigns can mobilize people to vote, but little attention has been given to whether the tone of the message matters. Studies of message tone have mostly been confined to mass media campaigns and ignored the growing role grassroots techniques play in contemporary political campaigns. Two randomized field experiments were conducted to determine the importance of message tone in grassroots contact. We find evidence that personally delivered messages can be effective at influencing voting preferences, but neither experiment uncovered a systematic difference between the effects of negative and positive messages on voter turnout or political attitudes.”


“The Role of Candidate Traits in Campaigns”Fridkin, Kim L.; Kenney, Patrick, J. Journal of Politics, January 2011, Vol. 73, Issue 1, 61-73. doi: 10.1017/S0022381610000861.

Abstract: “We examine how candidates shape citizens’ impressions of their personal traits during U.S. Senate campaigns. We look at the personality traits emphasized by candidates in their controlled communications and in news coverage of their campaigns. We couple information about campaign messages with a unique survey dataset allowing us to examine voters’ understanding and evaluations of the candidates’ personalities. We find that messages from the news media influence people’s willingness to rate the candidates on trait dimensions. In addition, negative trait messages emanating from challengers and the press shape citizens’ impressions of incumbents. In contrast, voters’ evaluations of challengers are unmoved by campaign messages, irrespective of the source or tone of the communications. Finally, we find citizens rely heavily on traits when evaluating competing candidates in U.S. Senate campaigns, even controlling for voters’ party, ideological and issue preferences.”


“The Seeds of Negativity: Knowledge and Money”
Lovett, Mitchell J.; Shachar, Ron. Marketing Science, 2011, Vol. 30, No. 3, 430-446. doi: 10.1287/mksc.1110.0638.

Abstract: “This paper studies the tendency to use negative ads. For this purpose, we focus on an interesting industry (political campaigns) and an intriguing empirical regularity (the tendency to “go negative” is higher in close races). We present a model of electoral competition in which ads inform voters either of the good traits of the candidate or of the bad traits of his opponent. We find that in equilibrium, the proportion of negative ads depends on both voters’ knowledge and the candidate’s budget. Furthermore, for an interesting subset of the parameter space, negativity increases in both knowledge and budget.”


“When Does Negativity Demobilize? Tracing the Conditional Effect of Negative Campaigning on Voter Turnout”
Krupnikov, Yanna. American Journal of Political Science, 2011, Vol. 55, Issue 4, 797-813. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2011.00522.x.

Abstract: “Do negative campaign advertisements affect voter turnout? Existing literature on this topic has produced conflicting empirical results. Some scholars show that negativity is demobilizing. Others show that negativity is mobilizing. Still others show that negativity has no effect on turnout. Relying on the psychology of decision making, this research argues and shows that this empirical stalemate is due to the fact that existing work ignores a crucial factor: the timing of exposure to negativity. Two independent empirical tests trace the conditional effect of negativity. The first test relies on data from the 2004 presidential campaign. The second test considers the effect of negativity over a broader period of time by considering elections 1976 to 2000. Taken together, both tests reinforce that negativity can only demobilize when two conditions are met: (1) a person is exposed to negativity after selecting a preferred candidate and (2) the negativity is about this selected candidate.”


“The Influence of Tone, Target and Issue Ownership on Political Advertising Effects in Primary Versus General Elections”
Meirick, Patrick C., et al. Journal of Political Marketing, 2011, Vol. 10, Issue 3. doi: 10.1080/15377857.2011.588111.

Abstract: “The conventional wisdom in the literature about political advertising effects — e.g., going negative risks backlash, stick to issues your party owns — has been derived from studies of general elections. Much less attention has been paid to primary elections, in which a partisan audience may be receptive to attacks on the opposing party and may judge most issues to be handled better by their own party. This experiment (N = 223) sets out to investigate the roles of tone (positive versus comparative), target (none, primary opponent, or general election opponent), and issue ownership (party-owned issue or unowned issue) in responses to political advertising during primary versus general elections. As predicted, partisans in primary election conditions had lower ad and sponsoring candidate evaluations for comparative ads attacking a primary opponent than for positive ads or comparative ads attacking the eventual general election opponent, but there were no differences between the latter two. Independents in the general election conditions responded more positively to positive ads than comparative ads. Issue ownership had no main effects.”


“A Negativity Gap? Voter Gender, Attack Politics, and Participation in American Elections”
Brooks, Deborah Jordan. Politics & Gender, 2010, Vol. 6, Issue 3, 319-341. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1743923X10000218.

Findings: 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.


“The Mass Media and the Public’s Assessments of Presidential Candidates, 1952-2000”
Gilens, Martin; Vavreck, Lynn; Cohen, Martin. The Journal of Politics, November 2007, Vol. 69, Issue 4, 1160-1175. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00615.x.

Abstract: “Media critics blame contemporary news for increasing levels of apathy and ignorance among the electorate. We agree that the amount of policy-oriented information in news coverage of presidential campaigns has declined and the level of news consumption has fallen. Yet, based on 50 years of data on media content and public attitudes, we find that over this period of time Americans have just as much to say about the major-party presidential candidates, what they have to say is more policy oriented, the association of vote choice with policy considerations has strengthened while the association with character considerations has weakened, and factual knowledge about the presidential candidates’ issue positions has not declined. We assess the role of education, party polarization, and paid advertising in explaining trends in Americans’ political knowledge and engagement. We show that the public’s steady level of information and increased focus on policy in presidential politics reflects the high level of policy content in paid ads, which have compensated for the shift of news coverage toward candidate character, scandal, and the horse race.”


Tags: elections, campaign ads, research roundup, tweeting, social media, fact checking

    Writers: and | Last updated: September 25, 2016

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