Campaigns and elections

Solutions in Search of Problems, Or Will The Fixation on Negative Ads Never End?

Apr 7 '09

My home state governor, Bev Perdue, has created a campaign reform task force:

bq. The “First Day of Change” directives also include the formation of a task force that would lead to the creation of an endowment that would give money to gubernatorial candidates starting in 2012 who agreed to fundraising limits and pledge to run positive campaigns. The endowment, which Perdue said last year could reach $50 million, would come from private sources.

The head of the task force, Tom Lambeth, says (quote available only in hard copy of the recent Politics magazine) :

bq. At the moment, we only have outlines, but our thoughts are that in order to qualify for endowment money, you have to pledge not to mention your opponent, and we may say that you may not engage in advertising that mentions your opponent. This will be a mechanism to discourage negative campaigning and insist on issue discussion.

Everyone wants “better” campaigns but negative campaigning isn’t really the culprit.

First, negative campaigning isn’t inimical to discussion of the issues. In fact, John Geer’s book finds exactly the opposite: negative ads are more likely than positive ads to discuss policy-related issues (and to provide evidence for their claims). If you want the candidates to discuss the issues, it’s actually counterproductive for them to stay positive.

Some of my research buttresses this. In this forthcoming paper with Matt Grossmann and Keena Lipsitz, we find that voters interviewed amidst a barrage of negative advertising are more likely to say that the candidates are being “negative” but not less likely to say that the candidates were being “informative” or “talking about what they themselves would do if elected” or “talking about policy issues.” In fact, in the 2000 presidential campaign, over time voters were more likely to say that the candidates were being negative and simultaneously more likely to say that they were talking about policy issues.

Second, negative campaigning doesn’t really hurt voters. The most comprehensive assessment is this article by Richard Lau, Lee, and Ivy Brown Rovner. Their main finding:

bq. All told, the research literature does not bear out the idea that negative campaigning is an effective means of winning votes, even though it tends to be more memorable and stimulate knowledge about the campaign. Nor is there any reliable evidence that negative campaigning depresses voter turnout, though it does slightly lower feelings of political efficacy, trust in government, and possibly overall public mood.

A more recent assessment is this article (gated) by Robert Jackson, Jeffery Mondak, and Robert Huckfeldt. They find that negative ads during the 2002 campaign had no effect on approval of Congress, feelings toward Republican or Democratic leaders, or people’s sense of political efficacy.

Third, if a goal of the task force is to improve how voters view campaigns, it’s not clear that targeting negative advertising will work. In this paper, Matt Grossmann, Keena Lipsitz, and I find that the public is pretty divided on negative campaigning, when they are asked a balanced question including reasons both to oppose and support it. Moreover, the people who most support negative campaigning — those who follow politics regularly — are the ones most dissatisfied with campaigns. So it’s not clear that less negativity will make people like campaigns more. In fact, our results suggest that another of the task force’s goals — expanding public financing of campaigns — is likely to be more effective. Those who follow politics regularly are more likely to support public financing.

I feel like all of the above is pretty close to the received wisdom in political science. But clearly it hasn’t penetrated into other realms.