An interesting discussion of the effect of negative (or attack) campaign ads was sparked by the recent lead-up to the recall elections in Wisconsin. (For the motivation for these recall elections, you can see this post from a guest blogger and this post on the accusations aimed at the governors campaign, and the discussion in the comments sections.) This article looks at the breakdown on the campaign funding in the largest metro areas of Wisconsin, and uses that as a launching off point for a discussion of the effects of such negative campaigns. (This data indicates that only 5% of the ads were positive!)
This time, says Goldstein, “I’ll say it. I’ve never seen a campaign more negative.”
Goldstein is being descriptive, not judgmental. “Negative” ads aren’t inherently “bad.” They can be false or true, fair or unfair, issue-based or personal, as can “positive” ads. The sleaziest campaign ads are almost always negative ads. But so are the most informative, some studies suggest.
Why was this campaign so “negative?”
Goldstein offers several reasons. There were big stakes. The outcome was in doubt (competitive elections generate more negative ads). Most of the money was spent by independent groups, which tend to be more exclusively attack-oriented than candidates are. The challengers and their allies were making a case for recalling incumbent lawmakers. Incumbents and their allies had a counter-strategy of “disqualifying” their challengers (making them too unpalatable to consider voting for). Both sides were serving up hard-hitting rhetoric aimed at turning out their base.
In a paper on the 2010 ad wars, Fowler and Rideout wrote that the heavily negative advertising in that cycle could have had a variety of consequences, based on previous research on the subject: it could have turned off some voters; it could have motivated others to vote by raising the political stakes; it could have even produced a more informed electorate, since negative ads tend to be more policy-oriented than positive ads.
For years, scholars have studied and debated these effects. One hugely influential study in the 1990s argued that negative ads reduce voter participation by essentially turning people off. But that study came at a time when turnout in America was declining and scholars were looking for explanations for that trend. Turnout has actually ticked upward in recent cycles (a period when negative advertising has increased).
Goldstein came to a different conclusion in his own academic research: that negative advertising, whether you like it or not, sometimes increased turnout. He examined ad data, election returns and voter surveys over the course of a decade.
“We never found it depressed turnout, and we never found it decreased knowledge,” he said.
For the numbers from Wisconsin, and the full discussion, check out the rest here.