Each election season, critics bemoan the rise of negativity in campaigns. But the role of negative messages in polarized politics is more complex, and perhaps more helpful, than conventional wisdom suggests. Too often our thinking is simplistic: When candidates issue an attack ad and then go on to lose—think Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m.” ad, or Mitt Romney’s welfare spot—we assume that negativity turned voters off. But when a negative spot is associated with the winner, as with George Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad in 1988, observers attribute the victory to a memorable, effective message that devastated the opponent’s campaign.
In fact, the vast majority of negative advertising does not fit squarely within either of these narratives. And while some political observers complain that the dominance of snark on new and social media has only deepened party polarization and disaffected citizenry, political scientists are finding that negative discourse can have positive effects.
Despite easy assumptions that negativity is all about personal attacks, it turns out that negative messages can address policy differences between candidates in meaningful, deeply informative ways. Under certain conditions, negative advertising can even make citizens more likely to vote. But the news about negativity is not all positive, with some scholars also suggesting that negative messages can have specific, damaging effects on voters and candidates alike. Here are five studies to help you navigate the attack ads over the next 10 months.
THE NEWS MEDIA IS PARTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE RISE IN NEGATIVE ADS
In an analysis of the content of campaign ads, Vanderbilt University’s John Geer notes a sharp rise in the percentage of negative ads since 1960, and especially since 2000. Issue ads, not personal attacks, Geer finds, account for most of the uptick. Moreover, the news media is increasingly drawn to these ads, which often highlight meaningful disagreements between candidates. In recent cycles, about 80 percent of TV news stories about campaign ads have focused on negative spots. These findings, alongside interviews with campaign leaders and journalists, suggest negative advertising may be less about persuading voters and more about generating attention. This suggests a different role for the media than we like to assume: News outlets are shaping and not merely reporting what happens during a campaign.
—“The News Media and the Rise of Negativity in Presidential Campaigns,” John Geer, PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 45, No. 3, 2012.
THE IMPACT OF NEGATIVE ADS ON TURNOUT IS ALL IN THE TIMING
When people view negative advertisements while they are still making up their minds about which way to vote, a negative spot may increase their likelihood of making it to the polls. The logic behind this is that negative ads—in part because of the reasons offered in the preceding study—help citizens distinguish between candidates. When potential voters have a clear preference, they are more likely to vote. But the link between negative ads and turnout changes after a potential voter has already made up her mind. Once a voter has decided on a candidate, it’s unlikely that she’ll switch—but a negative message about the candidate she’s chosen may inspire her to stay home on Election Day.
—“How Negativity Can Increase and Decrease Voter Turnout: The Effect of Timing,” Yanna Krupnikov, Political Communication, Vol. 31, No. 3, 2014.
BUT IT'S BEST TO USE PROXIES FOR ATTACKS
One consequence of negative ads is that they reflect poorly on the candidates. But viewer response changes depending on the sponsors. Researchers had study participants watch the same ad, and told each group that the ad had a different sponsor. Those who were told the ad was sponsored by the candidate reported the least-favorable impressions of that candidate, while those who were told it was sponsored by an outside group reported the most-favorable. Their findings have implications for the importance of disclosure laws, which clue citizens in to the ideological perspective behind group names. But, the authors note, “greater disclosure of ideological interests may not completely offset the group advantage.”
—“Attacks Without Consequences? Candidates, Parties, Groups, and the Changing Face of Negative Advertising,” Conor M. Dowling and Amber Wichowsky, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 59, No. 1, 2015.
SOCIAL MEDIA ALLOWS CANDIDATES TO ATTACK IN OTHER WAYS—AND TO CHALLENGE ASSUMPTIONS
In a study that included 765 congressional candidates who ran in 2012, researchers sought out gender differences based on the assumption that women’s “out-group status” would lead to different communication strategies. Previous research has shown that gender affects how voters perceive candidates’ issue strengths, with women being perceived as better suited to handling social policy. Female candidates are also associated with stereotypically feminine characteristics like kindness and passivity. Such considerations led the authors of the study to hypothesize that female candidates would use Twitter in a way that challenged these stereotypes—and they were right. Female candidates issued about seven more negative tweets, in total, than the average male candidate.
—“‘You Tweet Like a Girl!’: How Female Candidates Campaign on Twitter,” Heather K. Evans and Jennifer Hayes Clark, American Politics Research, 2016.
NEGATIVE MESSAGES DON'T STOP WHEN THE ELECTION IS OVER
The election season never ends. The rise of a new partisan media, argues the University of Pennsylvania’s Matthew Levendusky, has contributed to partisan citizens’ negative evaluation of other parties, making them less willing to support compromise. “Partisan media is certainly not the only ... reason for the discord in American politics,” Levendusky writes. “But its skewed perspective on the news does help to exacerbate and reify the contemporary political divisions.” Partisan media sources attack the other party “in fairly strident and negative terms.” These depictions affect how citizens think about politics. In a series of experiments, Levendusky found
that watching “like-minded” media drove down participants’ evaluations of the other party, and made them less likely to support bipartisanship.
—“Partisan Media Exposure and Attitudes Toward the Opposition,” Matthew Levendusky, Political Communication, Vol. 30, No. 4, 2013.
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