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Negative Campaigning Does It Help Or Does It Hurt?

Written by Annemarie Walter and Cees van der Eijk.

Negative campaigning is a widely applied campaign practice[1] and was part of the 2015 general election campaign. Negative campaigning occurs when a party chooses to focus on criticizing the opponent’s weaknesses instead of advocating own strengths when communicating with voters.[2] A party resorts to attack behaviour in an attempt to become voters’ preferred party by diminishing positive feelings for opposing parties.[3] Practitioners of negative campaigning generally believe it to be a successful campaign tool.[4] However, contrary to popular belief there is little scientific evidence that the practice of negative campaigning is effective.[5]

Whether a party decides to make use of negative campaigning depends on the expected balance between what the party will gain and the risk the party faces. Although negative campaigning has the potential to strengthen parties’ electoral attractiveness, the use of negative campaign messages is not without risk. Attack behaviour can result in negative feelings towards the attacker instead of the target.[6] This is the so-called “backlash” or “boomerang” effect. Therefore, only when the expected benefits outweigh the risks involved parties resort to attack behaviour.[7] Recently, we examined whether the use of negative campaigning helped British parties to improve their electoral attractiveness in the 2015 general election campaign. 

In our research we make use of the 2015 British Election Study that asked voters’ questions to measure their perceptions of parties’ use of negative campaigning. The following question was asked for the main political parties:  ‘In their campaigns political parties can focus on criticising the policies and personalities of other parties, or they can focus on putting forward their own policies and personalities. What is, in your view, the focus of the national campaign of the (fill in party name)?’ The respondents could answer on a 5 point scale, 1 represents mainly criticizing other parties and 5 represents putting forward their own policies and personalities. Graph 1 displays the tone of the parties’ campaigns and shows that the Conservative Party and UK Independence Party made the most use of attack behaviour. This study also shows that negative campaigning affects voters’ party preference. The more voters perceive a party’s campaign to be negative the lower the preference that voters had for the party in question. So the use of negative campaign messages made British parties less attractive in the eyes of their voters. Although negative campaigning is widely thought of as a campaign tool boosting voters feelings for the attacking parties, our research indicates the opposite is the case. Parties should think again when deciding to go negative as negative campaigning diminished British parties’ electoral attractiveness in the 2015 general election campaign.

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. See for more information www.annemariewalter.eu

Cees van der Eijk is a Professor of comparative politics, research methods and electoral studies at the Methods and Data Institute at the University of Nottingham. This research is part of the research project ‘CSNCC: Comparative Study of Negative Campaigning and its Consequences’ and is funded by a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship (n° 629012: FP7-PEOPLE-2013-IEF) and a Nottingham Research Fellowship. The BES team supported this research by incorporating the set of questions on campaign tone in the 2015 BESIP survey, which is funded by the ESRC.

Graph 1: Aggregate Voters’ Perceptions of the Level of Negative Campaigning Per Party Across the Campaign (Interpolated Median)

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[1] Alessandro Nai and Annemarie Walter (2015) New Perspectives on Negative Campaigning: Why Attack Politics Matters. Colchester: ECPR Press

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

[3] Lau, Richard R., Lee Sigelman and Ivy Brown Rovner (2007) The Effects of Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment, Journal of Politics, 69 (4): 1176-1209.

[4] Richard R. Lau and Gerald M. Pomper (2004) Negative Campaigning: An Analysis of U.S. Senate Elections. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; Richard R. Lau and Ivy Brown Rovner (2009) Negative Campaigning, Annual Review of Political Science, 12; 285-306

[5] Lau and Rovner (2009)

[6] Johnson-Cartee, Karen S., Gary Copeland and Eric E. Johnson (1991) Negative Advertising: Coming of Age. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

[7] Parties making use of negative campaigning in a multiparty system have to take additional risks into account to parties in a two party system. Parties might jeopardizing coalition participation when going negative as the use of negative campaigning can alienate future governing partners. In addition, the use of negative campaigning has the potential to strengthen ‘third’ parties’ electoral attractiveness, i.e. nor the attacking nor targeted party.  These risks are not discussed here, see 2015 EPOP paper for more information. This paper can be found at www.annemariewalter.eu

This article is part of the Center for British Politics (CPB) research series into negative campaigning. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Published inBritish PoliticsNegative CampaigningPolitics

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