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


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

    Writer: | Last updated: March 28, 2012

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    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, 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. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

    Study analysis

    Read the study titled “A Negativity Gap? Voter Gender, Attack Politics and Participation in American Elections.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Read the issue-related Associated Press article titled "It's On: GOP, Democrats Fight over Women Voters."

    1. What key insights from the study and news article should reporters be aware of as they cover campaign issues and tactics?