Saturday, March 7, 2009

Is Negative Campaigning a Plus?

In "Inside the Black Box of Negative Campaign Effects: Three Reasons Why Negative Campaigns Mobilize," Paul S. Martin lays out research that shows that negative political campaigns actually mobilize people to vote.  They seem to be "a kind of guilty pleasure for Americans." In surveys, people claim to dislike negative ads, but observational data proves otherwise. Martin found that the three mechanisms of voter motivation include republican duty, candidate threat, and perceived closeness of the election.

On the side of those who believe that negative campaigns demobilize voters, most say that people are repulsed by the attacks. On the other side, most argue that "campaign negativity stimulates attention to and awareness of the campaign." The demobilization opponents rely on reading cultural tastes whereas the mobilization side relies on a reading of psychological information.

The first mechanism of mobilization, republican duty, states that Americans share a deep concern for their country and its future. This concern leads them to participate. Negative ads focus on issues and citizens become more aware of problems through the ads since negative attention is "advantaged in attention, memory, and judgement."

The second route claims that campaigns may arouse anxiety which stimulates interest. Emotions, including anxiety, should not be overlooked. When people have strong emotions and feel strongly about something, they are more likely to be interested in the campaign.

The last idea states that "citizens participate in politics if the utility of their participation outweighs the cost of their effort. And the marginal utility of a vote is directly related to the closeness of a race." Negative campaigns signal a "close race" since there is a large amount of advertising. 

To test these ideas, Martin used data from WiscAds. The data was from the 1996 presidential race. During the period of study, Bill Clinton aired 91,432 ads and Bob Dole aired 70,728 ads. 6% of Clinton's ads were negative and 70% of Dole's were negative. Research found that "only Clinton's negative ads produced any anxiety among Democrats and independents, and then the ads influenced only feelings of fear about Dole." Also, Dole was relatively unknown to the public before the presidential campaign. This gave Clinton a "negative advertising advantage- the ability to fill a relatively blank canvas."  Exposure to both sides' negative ads made Republicans think the race was closer than it was. The Democrats did not feel the same. Perhaps this was a result of the Republican's wishful thinking.

To conclude, Martin says that all three routes mobilized voters. This does not mean that negative campaigning is the best method. Positive ads may also mobilize voters but we do not know this because this study did not test them against each other. Also, this study only looked at the 1996 presidential race and not all races may be the same. People may also grow "used" to negative campaigning and get tired of it. Negative campaigning may also have aspects that cause demobilization as Martin did not look closely as this aspect. It would be nice to see an updated version of this study that looks at the negatives of negative campaigning and also looks at positive campaigning.

1 comment:

  1. "On the other side, most argue that "campaign negativity stimulates attention to and awareness of the campaign.""

    I wonder if people conflate negative campaign ads with misleading negative ads (which many are). For example the swift boat ads that destroyed McCain the first time around.

    I also wonder whether there are differences between democrats and repubs. that have nothing to do with who is winning, etc. There's actually an interesting article on personality differences between the two that you could look at.