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Puzzling Evidence

The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment by Lau, Sigelman and Rovner. (PDF link)

   This article opens by noting that between 2004 and 2006 negative political advertising skyrocketed. During the 2004 Congressional elections, 1 percent of Democratic and 46 percent of Republican advertisements were negative attack ads. Stunningly, during the 2006 Congressional elections those figures increased to 83 percent from Democrats and 89 percent from Republican. There is a perception that negative advertisements are potent, more memorable than positive messages, and attract more attention. In addition to how individual elections are impacted, the article also examined broader systemic results of negative campaigns. Noted were a lowered perception of political efficiency, reduced trust in government, and an overall “turning off” attitude toward politics for many of the electorate. 

  In June 2005, approximately 275 scholars in the areas of political campaigns or negative advertising were surveyed, which yielded dozens of new studies. In total, 111 studies were analyzed. Results indicated that negative ads were somewhat easier to recall than the positive equivalent. While the goal of negative campaigns is to attack the opposition, although backlash is possible, the article concludes the net effect aids the attacker.  

   The article concludes research does not support negative advertisements being effective in swinging voters to one side. Their findings show that negative ads are not more effective than positive messages, but are somewhat more memorable and generate somewhat increased campaign related knowledge.

   Also examined was the question of negative ads harming the political system. The demobilization hypothesis claims that people become alienated from politics due to negative campaigns. The authors found studies to support and refute the hypothesis, but all results were negligible. The conclusion is that research does not support the concept of suppressed voter turnout. In fact, there are instances where a negative campaign may slightly mobilize the electorate.

   Other conclusions included a correlation between increased exposure to negative ads and a lowering of trust and satisfaction with politics. No evidence was found to support attacker party affiliation impacting on an ad’s effectiveness. While negative campaigns may motivate partisan voters, they generally distances independents.

   While the prevailing wisdom claims negative ads work, with high profile examples such as Willie Horton or the Swift Boat Veterans religiously cited, many counter examples exist. The same consultants who helped defeat John Kerry with the Swift Boat campaign also produced negative ads that helped lose the 2005 New Jersey gubernatorial election.

   The article finds no consistent evidence showing negative ads are effective, but does conclude they lower trust in government, and lessen the perception of political efficiency. This result could also be caused by media coverage of negative ads.

- Greg Ellison