What the research shows
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 2017; Garramone 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
In 2022 $2.1 billion was spent on campaign ads with 69% of this spent on attack ads
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 2019; Krupnikov 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.
“I pledge to choose civility when campaigning and while serving in office. To be a role model for my community I will:.
- I will focus on issues.
- I will prioritize civil and rational debate.
- I will not engage in name calling or make personal attacks on other candidates and their families.
- I will avoid negative ads whenever possible.
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