Negative Ads Story on NPR

NPR’s science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, put together a nice short piece on negative ads.   Find it here.  It includes a couple quotes from me—building off of things I’ve written previously.

One brief follow-up.  The piece pivots off of  a statement by political scientist Joseph Heim, who says that negative ads can be effective for undecided voters or earlier in the campaign.  I actually agree with this somewhat.  As I’ve noted before, campaign advertising is likely to have a larger impact when the candidates are unfamiliar, which in turn makes voters less certain who to vote for. Presidential primaries, which is what Heim was talking about, often feature unfamiliar candidates.  Ads in this GOP primary may have mattered, at least by my back-of-the-envelope calculations from before the Florida primary.

The issue, I think, is that we don’t know that negative ads necessarily have a larger impact than positive ads even in races with unfamiliar candidates, lots of undecided voters, etc.  As Phil Arena has noted, the decision to “go negative” is hardly independent of where the candidate is in the polls.  It’s not clear what’s the cart and what’s the horse—ads or poll numbers.

Another point I made in the interview, although this didn’t make it into the story, is that in real-life campaigns feature all kinds of ads—purely positive, purely negative, contrast—and typically these ads are being aired at the same time.  It’s hard to find a controlled setting—except in the proverbial laboratory—where you can isolate the effects of negative ads.

2 Responses to Negative Ads Story on NPR

  1. Andrew Gelman April 4, 2012 at 2:23 am #


    I’m glad to hear that Vedantam spoke with you. Earlier he’d used his journalistic platform to promulgate a misunderstanding about divided government. It’s a good sign when people realize that, when writing about politics, it makes sense to talk with political scientists, rather than simply relying on the sometimes unfocused thoughts of psychologists, economists, journalists, and politicos. All those other people have useful insights, but we have something to add too!

  2. paul April 5, 2012 at 2:51 am #