The Political Power of a Negative Campaign

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
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Republican Presidential Candidate Donald  Trump interviewed by journalist Wolf Blitzer on January 6, 2016, in New York City.  (Photo: Regine Mahaux/Getty  Images)

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump interviewed by journalist Wolf Blitzer on January 6, 2016, in New York City. (Photo: Regine Mahaux/Getty Images)

The most negative political advertisements can also be the most informative—and Twitter is empowering female candidates to be more aggressive. Julia Azari looks at five recent studies to help you navigate the attack ads over the next 10 months.

Azari's Pacific Standard story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Thursday, January 07. Until then, an excerpt:

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.

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