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How Negative Campaigning Can Fall Flat

Mudslinging may get results for campaigns, but new research suggests that these negatively tailored messages should not be delivered in person.
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It's beginning to look like 2004 all over again.

While Bush versus Kerry may feel like a lifetime ago, that infamously polarized election might be better suited to forecast the 2010 midterms than the anomaly that was the 2008 campaign. As officials and hacks dash back to entrenched positions, it's party platforms, not individual personalities, that are again increasingly important to voters. Just like 2004, voters this year should expect a hard-fought, hot button issue-oriented battle between the faceless DNC and RNC establishments. ("Hope" and "Change" R.I.P. — for now).

As in every modern election, a well-disciplined campaign and carefully honed talking points are essential for victory. But more important than a sound message is, of course, the strategy with which you attack, discredit or otherwise disparage the opposing party's blueprint.

Here's a hint for potential mudslingers: Don't do it in person or by phone.

Newly published research by Kevin Arceneaux of Temple University and David W. Nickerson at the University of Notre Dame finds that personally delivering a negative campaign message (by telephone or direct communication) may have less benefit to the sponsor than previously believed.

In two very large field experiments conducted during the 2004 election, with a combined 69,000 participants contacted, the researchers found that a negative tone in the message had very little, if any, discernable effects on voter turnout and participation.

In the first case-study, conducted in the battleground state of Minnesota a weekend before Election Day, thousands of undecided voters were contacted by phone and were subjected to a carefully scripted positive or negative message by volunteers. After the election, an independent polling firm contacted a random sample of these undecided voters to determine which candidate voters eventually cast their ballot for. Findings indicated that, "at best, [negatively framed personal messages] have a weak (i.e. small and statistically insignificant) positive effect on turnout and support for the sponsor."

Comparable data was found in the second case study, a hard-fought Los Angeles ballot proposition campaign. Again, after a professional polling firm contacted citizens who voted, the results indicated that a personally delivered negative message, in this case door-to-door canvassing, had no substantial advantage over a similarly delivered positive one.

If these case-study findings seem perplexing, well, they are.

Remember that 2004 was the year Bush/Cheney debuted the viciously negative "Swift Boat" campaign and the inexplicably compelling "Wolves" TV spots. In hindsight, everybody from academics to armchair pundits has credited these ads for single-handedly sinking John Kerry's campaign despite the incumbent president's high disapproval ratings and support for an unpopular war. (Kerry, for his part, flaccidly countered with this.)

There's strong evidence suggesting that "going negative" in the mass media can be devastatingly successful, but — as this new research illustrates — directly contacting voters with unsavory information can yield mixed results.

Unlike being bombarded by negative advertising while passively watching TV, likely voters who are approached on the street or called by phone have to digest and instantly respond to a campaign volunteer who delivers the dour message. Instead of absorbing the information through repetition (like they would with a TV commercial) they have to immediately assess this data and come to a conclusion quickly.

On the campaign trail, participants are invited to have real-life conversations where they talk with a paid worker or volunteer. This active deliberation — rather than passive digestion — of the information is the key difference between the effectiveness of negative campaign spots on TV and the personal delivery of the message by telephone or in person.

"Personally delivered messages may encourage higher levels of elaboration, similar to laboratory experiments in which patients are encouraged to think about their opinion," wrote the authors. "Such a situation increases the probability that people may systematically process the information they are presented." And therein lays the danger for mudslingers.

The lesson: If you're "going negative," stick to carpet-bombing the airwaves. Otherwise, voters might actually think twice about the smut being hurled at them.

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