Do negative campaign ads work?

Voters seem to be increasingly turned off by negative campaign ads and mudslinging, but that hasn't deterred political candidates from using these tactics. Is there any evidence of voter backlash against negative campaigning? Or do candidates persist in using negative campaign tactics because they still work?

There is a broadly held public sentiment that political campaigning is more negative and unethical than it has ever been. Whether this is historically true or not, however, is the subject of some debate. Politicians have long thrown mud at each other and the history of negative campaigning reaches back to the earliest days of this nation. Then as today, rumor and gossip feed a press and public hungry for scandalous tales.

Setting aside the question of whether or not things have gotten worse, there remain to be addressed important questions about the effects of negative campaigning. However, clear answers to these questions are not readily forthcoming because research on negative campaigning and negative campaign advertising has yielded conflicting results. Some studies suggest that negative campaign ads are more easily remembered and, therefore, have a greater influence on voters' attitudes and vote decisions. Other research, however, provides evidence that the opposite is true. Moreover, while some research suggests that candidates who run negative ads are more likely to win, other research suggests that running negative ads makes a candidate more likely (or at least equally likely) to lose. There are also conflicting conclusions about the effect of negative advertising on voter turnout--some research concludes that negative campaigning depresses turnout while other findings suggest that intense competition (often characterized by negative campaigning) enhances voter turnout. (For an excellent review of this research see "The Effectiveness of Negative Political Advertisements: A Meta-analytic Review" by Richard Lau, Lee Sigelman, Caroline Heldman, & Paul Babbitt in the American Political Science Review, Volume 93, Number 4, December 1999.)

While the research on negative advertising in political campaigns has painted something less than a clear picture on most counts, one thing is increasingly clear--voters overwhelmingly dislike negative advertising and are troubled by its widespread use. According to a recent bipartisan survey commission by the Project on Campaign Conduct, voters are not overjoyed with today's political candidates and their campaign tactics.

Highlights from the Survey

Of those surveyed:

Interestingly, voters are also capable of distinguishing between what they feel are fair and unfair "attacks" in a political campaign. At least 57% of those surveyed believe negative information provided by one candidate about his or her opponent is relevant and useful when it relates to the following:

At the same time, at least 63% of those surveyed indicated the following kinds of information should be considered out of bounds:

The Influence of Negative Campaign Ads

Even though voters hold such attitudes, are they nonetheless swayed by the messages presented to them in negative campaign ads? The conventional wisdom among campaign professionals is that negative ads do, in fact, work. That is, while voters might not like negative ads, their perceptions of candidates attacked in negative ads are tarnished by the information they are exposed to. However, two important qualifications must be made to this general observation. First, according to the survey data presented above, voters do not treat all negative information equally. If the allegations or information presented in a negative ad are not perceived as relevant, the effects of the ad will probably be less significant. Second, while negative ads have the capacity to weaken political support for a candidate's opponent, "going negative" in a campaign can also diminish the attacking candidate's stature among voters. There is a perceptible "backlash" effect when a candidate persistently publishes or airs negative information about his or her opponent, especially when that information is not perceived by voters as immediately relevant to the campaign.

So when should a candidate use negative information about an opponent? The rule of thumb for professional campaign consultants is: "Never, never use negative campaign tactics unless your have to." Clearly, a candidate that can run an impeccably positive campaign and win by a comfortable margin is much better off running a "clean" campaign than a negative one. However, there are many instances in which a candidate cannot (at least in his or her own estimation) win simply by presenting positive information about him or herself. In every electoral contest, candidates try to secure the support of enough voters to win on election day. This process is a zero-sum game. A vote for one's opponent is one few vote a candidate will get on election day. A vote taken away from one's opponent is generally transferred to one's self. Winning voter support, then, can be accomplished by building strong support for one's self or by undercutting public support for one's opponent. When candidates struggle in their efforts to build positive images of themselves, many choose to close the gap by tarnishing the images of their opponents.

Given the realities of modern political campaigning, it should come as no surprise that the candidates most likely to use negative ads are challengers. Incumbents have generally spent years building positive images of themselves among voters. The longer an image of a candidate is maintained in the minds of voters, the more difficult it becomes to change that image. A challenger hoping to unseat and incumbent must provide evidence that the positive images voters have of their opponents are inaccurate. It is generally not enough for a challenger to simply present a positive image of him or herself. In fact, if voters have equally positive feelings about both candidates, the incumbent is bound to win on election day because the incumbent is a more familiar and proven commodity.

The choice that candidates have to make is whether the negative information they want to emphasize in a campaign against an incumbent is important enough to voters to make them disavow their opponents and support them instead. As the polling data cited above suggests, there are some kinds of negative information that voters believe is appropriate and useful as they make their voting decisions. All candidates--incumbents, challengers and contestants in open-seat races--should consider the benefits and costs of negative campaigning. They should also know that voters are watching, perhaps more carefully than they have before. When a negative ad aims at something outside of the bounds of what voters consider to be relevant and fair, the effects just might be opposite of what was intended. And, in the end, the voters are the final judges of what is fair and what is appropriate in a political campaign.