What the research shows

Is negative campaigning an effective electoral strategy for political candidates? At first glance, negativity and incivility seem ubiquitous in U.S. politics. Americans need not look long before coming across negativity in political discussion, whether it be through watching political news (Soroka and McAdams 2015) or interacting on social media (Kim et al. 2021Theocharis et al. 2020). Over the last several elections cycles, candidates for political office have done little to combat this negativity, mudslinging frequently and across all advertising platforms (Auter and Fine 2016Franz, Ridout, and Fowler 2023). While some may engage in negativity as an expression of underlying personality traits (Nai 2020), the incentive to “go negative” is often more strategic: reduce voter turnout for your political opponent by highlighting unsavory policy positions or personal characteristics (Nai 2020).

Does this strategy work as intended? We review decades of research in political science, which comes to a firm conclusion: no. The demobilizing effects of negative campaigning are minimal and rarely benefit the attacker (Lau and Rovner 2009). For political candidates, the risks of negative campaigning, both for personal electoral fortunes and broader social well-being, are simply not worth the personal costs.

Evaluating Negative Campaigning

The strategic calculus of negative campaigning weighs two different effects: the demobilizing effect on an opponent’s electoral base, and the backlash effect on a candidate’s own supports. Put simply, candidates who campaign negatively anticipate some of their own supporters will sour on their campaign due to the unsavory nature of their tactics, but those losses will be outweighed by the number of supporters turned off from the opposing candidate (Dolezal, Ennser-Jedenastik, and Müller 2017Garramone 1984). This gives researchers a fairly simple goalpost for evaluating the effectiveness of negative campaigning, comparing attitudes toward candidates and intention to vote before and after a negative campaign is won.

Analysis of 111 studies conducted on negative campaigning through mid-2006 shows no effect on candidate choice or turnout

Dozens of studies, experiments, and analyses have been conducted by social scientists attempting to determine negative campaigning’s effects, starting in the 1990s (Ansolabehere et al. 1994). Because researchers utilize varieties of techniques and draw from different sets of data, finding a common thread and directly comparing results can often be difficult. However, Lau, Sigelman, and Rovner (2007) do just this, compiling 111 studies conducted on negative campaigning through mid-2006 and comparing effects using a standardized metric. They find negative campaigning, at best, only modestly reduces positive feelings for the subject of the attack. Conversely, there is a more consistent and sizable reduction in positive feelings toward the attacker. In studies that measure feelings toward both candidates, there is no indication attackers receive any benefit from going negative. Even while some intermediary components of the strategy are borne out in the research (such as negative campaigning increasing campaign-relevant knowledge), the ultimate result of negative campaigning is, at best, a wash for attackers or, at worst, harmful to their own campaigns. At the very least, the return on investment is not worth the high price tag; according to Open Secrets, $2.1 billion was spent on political advertising during the 2022 midterms, of which 69% was spent on attack ads (Giorno 2022).


In 2022 $2.1 billion was spent on campaign ads with 69% of this spent on attack ads

Research since 2007 has generally confirmed the main results of the meta-analysis that negative campaigning is an ineffective path to victory (Frimer and Skitka 2018Galasso, Nannicini, and Nunnari 2023Malloy and Pearson-Merkowitz 2016). Furthermore, such studies underscore the tenuousness of any reduction in positive feelings toward the target of the ad. When such reductions do occur (even though they are overwhelmed by greater reductions in positive feelings toward the attacker), effects are constrained to certain time periods (Krupnikov 2014) among small subsets of the population amenable to negativity (K. L. Fridkin and Kenney 2011) and are generally fleeting in their long-term impact on vote choice (Hill et al. 2013). When negative campaigns use misinformation, such advertisements are effectively combated by fact-checking (K. Fridkin, Kenney, and Wintersieck 2015).

Downstream Effects

Beyond being generally unhelpful for attackers, there is a growing consensus in political science that negative campaigning is detrimental to the American social fabric and democracy writ large. In their analysis of previous studies, Lau, Sigelman, and Rovner (2007) found negative campaigning reduces feelings of personal political efficacy, trust, and satisfaction with government, results corroborated by more recent work (Goovaerts and Marien 2020). In some contexts, negative campaigns make voters question the legitimacy of political institutions themselves (Gibson 2008) . Negative campaigning increases feelings of antipathy toward members of the opposite party (Lau et al. 2017) and frequently invokes troubling stereotypes related to gender and race (Cassese and Holman 2019Krupnikov and Piston 2015).

Of additional concern is as social media platforms have come to dominate American political discourse, so too has it been soured by negativity. Incivility is rampant on platforms like Twitter (Theocharis et al. 2020) and Facebook (Su et al. 2018), with political candidates willfully engaging in and stoking such incivility (Gross and Johnson 2016). Incivility, it seems, encourages more incivility (Kim et al. 2021), making future prospects for level-headed political discussion seem more dire by the day.


In summary, while there may be strategic incentives for candidates to engage in negative campaigning, evidence from decades of research suggests it is a “monkey’s paw” for attackers. For any reduction achieved in an opponent’s base, a similar or greater reduction will generally occur in the base of the attacker. Furthermore, negative campaigning is a net societal strain, hampering trust in government, inflaming intergroup rivalries, and stoking online toxicity. The speculative benefits of negative campaigning are not worth the cost, and candidates should look elsewhere for effective campaign strategies.


The speculative benefits of negative campaigning are not worth the cost, and candidates should look elsewhere for effective campaign strategies.

So what should candidates for political office prioritize during their campaigns? We have two recommendations based on existing research. First, there seems to be nothing more effective than traditional get out the vote campaigns. Hundreds of field experiments confirm voter canvassing to be extraordinarily effective at increasing voter turnout (Green and Gerber 2019), which proves rather cost efficient due to the seemingly contagious nature of voting among neighbors (Nickerson 2008). Second, simply increasing voter familiarity with a candidate through generic advertising can help campaigns succeed. Particularly in down-ballot races, voters are often searching for informational short-cuts to help make decisions (Schaffner and Streb 2002). Simply having one’s name known by voters is a significant advantage over political opponents (Kam and Zechmeister 2013). While simple, these methods appear more effective than negative campaigning, and have none of the deleterious effects on America’s social fabric.


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