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Negative Campaigning Does Not Need To Be Defended

By Annemarie Walter

The use of negative campaigning is hotly debated in almost every election campaign, and the current General Election is no exception. Negativity was already discussed before the last, ‘hot’, phase of the campaign.  Labour’s campaign chief Douglas Alexander announced in January that they discarded all plans to run billboard posters of David Cameron in what he said was a deliberate attempt to avoid “negative personalised adverts” and to raise the tone of debate. This announcement was made after (and in response to) a series of negative posters from the Conservatives attacking Ed Milliband.[1] More recently Ed Miliband was branded “shameful” by various Conservative politicians for suggesting that David Cameron was partly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean in a pre-briefed Chatham House speech.[2] Similar outrage was voiced by Labour politicians when Conservative defence secretary Michael Fallon stated that Ed Miliband had “stabbed his own brother in the back” to lead Labour and was now “willing to stab the UK in the back” by doing a deal on Trident with the SNP “to become PM”. To cite Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman: “To have accused Ed Miliband of being somebody who would stab the country in the back, I think that is negative campaigning – obviously they hope it’s going to work – but actually it undermines our democracy, because it turns people off.”[3]

Even though negative campaigning is common campaign practice[4] it is often denounced by politicians and journalists alike. Negative campaigning – criticizing the opponent to undermine any positive feelings voters might have towards that opponent – is often regarded as indecent and unwanted. Voters are said to strongly dislike such attacks and be put off by it. Therefore, politicians and parties should refrain from this and campaign in a more ‘civilized’ manner. However, the view that negative campaigning is just ‘evil’ is too simplistic.

Although early scholarly work on negative campaigning primarily spoke of its negative effects – it would make voters cynical about politics and stimulate voter withdrawal from the electoral process[5] – more recent work is less disapproving. The presumed negative effects of negative campaigning are often not found to exist at all, and some analysts even report positive effects. These scholars report that negative campaigning tends to be more informative than positive campaigning; that voters remember negative campaign messages better than positive campaign messages; and that negative campaigning has the potential to mobilize voters. Consequently, some of these scholars question the assumption that negative campaigning is damaging for democracy.[6]

Kyle Mattes and David Redlawsk go even a step further in their recent book The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning.[7] They challenge the conventional wisdom that voters hate negative campaigning. Instead, they claim that voters are not at all angered by negative campaigning and even find it helpful. But what about the numerous studies that claim that voters do resent attacks? Mattes and Redlawsk contend that alleged negative voter sentiment towards negative campaigning is largely an artefact of the wording of the questions used in surveys and experiments. Questions containing the word ‘negative’ activate a social-desirability effect resulting in expressing a dislike for negative campaigning.

Mattes and Redlawsk also argue that not all negative campaigning is experienced in the same way by all voters. Their study shows that people tend to dislike personal attacks, in particular attacks on opponent’s family or their religious beliefs. On the other hand voters are completely at ease with attacks that focus on an opponent’s record, policy stance or lack of experience. But even more important than the focus of attacks is its believability. Voters are not angry or ‘put off’ at all about negative claims that they find credible.

Thus, as voters are not as bothered by negative campaigning as they are often thought to be, Mattes and Redlawsk suggest that negative campaigning might not be harmful at all, that it may even be beneficial for the electoral process, and that democracy needs negativity to expose voters to valuable and relevant information. Positive campaigning tends to have less informational content as it only addresses the topics that benefits the candidate. Therefore Mattes and Redlawsk feel that negative campaigning needs no defense.

This thought provoking claim might, however, be overstated as there will always be ethical standards of conduct to which political parties and candidates have to adhere, regardless of whether voters’ are angered by violation of these standards and/or find negative claims credible. But apart from this caveat, Mattes and Redlawsk’s work does call for a more informed and nuanced public debate in which we differentiate between different types of negative campaigning instead of simply assuming that voters dislike negative campaigning. The notion that negative campaigning is only detrimental for representative democracy is too simplified, and empirically incorrect.

Annemarie Walter is a Marie Curie and Nottingham Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham.Her broad areas of research interests include election campaigns, political communication, political parties and party systems, party strategy and electoral behaviour.

Image credit: Conservative Party

[1] Labour rules out ‘negative’ election campaign posters, The Guardian, 31 January 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jan/31/labour-cameron-posters-negative-election-campaign

[2] Matt Dathan (2015) General Election 2015: Miliband branded ‘shameful’ as negative campaigning stoops to new low over migrant crisis, The Independent, 24 April 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/generalelection/general-election-2015-miliband-branded-shameful-as-negative-campaigning-stoops-to-new-low-over-migrant-crisis-10200891.html

[3] Harman and Osborne at odds over ‘tone’ of election campaign, BBC News, 12 April 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2015-32274630

[4] Election 2015: Parties accentuate the negative, BBC News, 10 April 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2015-32247644

[5] See for instance Ansolabehere and Iyengar (1995) Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink & Polarize the Electorate. New York: Free Press

[6] See for instance Geer, John (2006) In Defense of Negativity, Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. Chicago: Chicago University Press

[7] Mattes, Kyle and David P. Redlawsk (2014) The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning, London: The University of Chicago

Published inBritish PoliticsGeneral Election 2015Politics

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