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Going nasty in the land of consensus: Negative campaigning in Swiss referendums

Written by Alessandro Nai.

Switzerland is often referred to as the perfect example of “consensus democracy”[i], characterized by a long-lasting tradition of amicable agreements and accommodative decision-making among the political elite, intuitively at odds with the use of nasty political discourse and aggressive campaigning techniques. Furthermore, Swiss electoral and referendum campaigns are still poorly professionalized and “Americanized”, rarely relying on political consultants, spin-doctors and opposition research techniques – which have been argued to foster use of attack rhetoric[ii].

Yet, negative campaigning do exists in Switzerland, as in virtually every country in the world[iii]. Negative campaigning is even a rather prominent feature of Swiss referendum campaigns, where competition is not between opposing candidates but between opposing policy proposals. An analysis of 119 referendums held in Switzerland between 1999 and 2012 (about 10’000 newspaper ads coded) highlights that, on average, 8% of political ads contain at least one direct attack towards political opponents (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Share of negative ads in referendum campaigns (1999-2012)


A quantitative analysis of referendum campaign strategies in Switzerland[iv] shows, furthermore, that the reasons to go negative in Swiss referendums are consistent to what is discussed in the predominantly US-centered electoral literature.

First, attacks are significantly more used towards the end of the campaign. Like how it has been shown for elections[v], in referendums as well when the time to convince voters runs short political actors put aside concerns over a potential backlash effect and turn to negative campaigning.

Second, as in electoral races[vi], actors lagging behind in the polls are substantially more likely to go negative on their opponents. Facing a clear risk of defeat and thus having nothing to lose, at least in the short run, political actors losing in the polls see the likely gains associated with the use of attacks outweigh the potential risks (again, in terms of backlash effects).

Third, ads without any explicit endorsement (by a politician, for instance) are more likely to contain negative campaigning. In line with recent research in U.S. elections[vii], campaign actors seem to protect themselves from the possible harmful effects of negative advertising by emitting anonymous messages.

Fourth, more extreme political parties are more likely to go negative. Ads sponsored by the Swiss people’s party (who achieved a landslide win in the recent federal election) are indeed strongly more negative than ads published by other less extreme actors, confirming research on Danish elections[viii].

Swiss referendum campaigns are frequently negative, and the reasons for political actors to go negative echo the general trends highlighted for the US electoral case. But what are the effects of negativity in Swiss referendum campaigns? Do they mobilize or demobilize the electorate?

When it comes to the effects of negative campaigning on turnout, existing literature yields conflicting results. On the one hand, the “demobilization ” theory[ix] posits that negative discourse is one of the major causes for the current disaffection among citizens with the political elites. Citizens “may become fed up with the mudslinging and decide to stay at home on Election Day. Harsh attacks that last the length of a long campaign may spill past assessments of the candidates and alter citizens’ views of the political system. […so that they become] less trustful of government, less politically efficacious and less interested in politics”[x]. This negative effect, on the other hand, has been contested by scholars highlighting that negative campaigning produces higher turnout[xi]. The rationale behind such “mobilizing” effect, says Martin[xii], is threefold: first, negative campaigns might tingle the shared public concerns over the future of their country, thus activating the republican duty of voting. Second, negative campaigns might arouse anxiety, which has shown to stimulate attention and involvement. Third, negative campaigns might be perceived as indicators of close races, which increases the marginal utility for individuals to participate in the electoral process.

All in all, existing research has failed in providing a unified framework on negative campaigning effects. A series of meta-analyses[xiii] did not provide additional insights to solve the puzzle.

As I argued elsewhere[xiv], the conundrum of such conflicting results can be disentangled by looking more closely at the dynamics at work. For instance, different types of attacks have been shown to have different effects. Recent research differentiating between person-based and policy-based attacks[xv], attack appeals directed at issues, traits or values[xvi], civil and uncivil attacks[xvii] and relevant and irrelevant attacks[xviii] clearly shows that different negative messages might have opposite effects.

In this regard, Swiss referendum campaigns are also illustrative, as I showed elsewhere[xix]. Analysis of the data described above (but only for the 1999-2005 period) highlights that the direction of the campaign strongly matters: negative campaigns opposing policy reforms depress turnout, whereas negative campaigns advocating for a policy change mobilize. The reasons for such an opposite effect are still matter of speculation, but negativity in status quo campaigns – more frequent historically in Switzerland – might trigger tedium and boredom, which are in turn associated with disengagement and lower turnout; on the other side, negativity in policy change campaigns – less frequent and thus unexpected – might elicit surprise and attention, which are conductive of higher engagement and turnout.

Negative campaigning is a complex phenomenon. On the supply side, research studying the reasons to go negative faces the challenge of assessing the strategic behaviour of political actors. On the demand side, assessing the effects of negative messages on behaviours and attitudes implies stepping into the black box of citizens’ minds, an even more elusive task. To this we have to add that a large share of existing studies on causes and effects of negative campaigning deal with the US case. Evidence presented here on the Swiss case – perhaps the most opposite scenario to the US case – is a step towards a more general framework for understanding causes and consequences of attack politics.

Alessandro Nai is a Project Manager and Research Associate at the University of Sydney. This article forms part of the Center for British Politics (CPB) research series into negative campaigning. Image credit: CC by Gideon/Flickr.

[i] Lijphart, A. (1999) Patterns of democracy. Government forms and performance in thirty-six countries, New Haven: Yale University Press.

[ii] Geer, J. G. (2012) ‘The news media and the rise of negativity in presidential campaigns‘, PS: Political Science & Politics, 45(03): 422-427.

[iii] Nai, A. and Walter, A. S. (Eds.) (2015) New perspectives on negative campaigning: why attack politics matters, Colchester: ECPR Press Studies in European Political Science.

[iv] Nai, A. and Sciarini, P. (2015) ‘Why ‘going negative’? Strategic and situational determinants of personal attacks in Swiss direct democratic votes‘, Journal of Political Marketing, DOI: 10.1080/15377857.2015.1058310.

[v] Damore, D. F. (2002) ‘Candidate Strategy and the Decision to Go Negative‘, Political Research Quarterly, 55(3): 669-685.

[vi] Skaperdas, S. and Grofman, B. (1995) ‘Modeling negative campaigning‘, American Political Science Review, 89(1): 49-61.

[vii] Brooks, D. J. and Murov, M. (2012) ‘Assessing accountability in a post-Citizens United era: The effects of attack ad sponsorship by unknown independent groups‘, American Political Research, 40(3): 383-418.

[viii] Elmelund-Præstekær, C. (2010) ‘Beyond American Negativity: Toward a General Understanding of the Determinants of Negative Campaigning‘, European Political Science Review, 2(1): 137-156.

[ix] Ansolabehere, S. and Iyengar, S. (1995) Going Negative: How Attack Ads Shrink and Polarize The Electorate, New York: Free Press; Ansolabehere, S., Iyengar, S. and Simon, A. (1999) ‘Replicating experiments using aggregate and survey data: The case of negative advertising and turnout‘, American Political Science Review, 93(4): 901-909; Ansolabehere, S., Iyengar, S., Simon, A. and Valentino, N. (1994) ‘Does attack advertising demobilize the electorate?‘, The American Political Science Review, 88(4): 829-838.

[x] Fridkin, K. L. and Kenney, P. J. (2012) ‘The impact of negative campaigning on citizens’ actions and attitudes’, in Semetko, H. A. and Scammell, M. (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Political Communication, Los Angeles: Sage, pp. 173–185.

[xi] Finkel, S. E. and Geer, J. G. (1998) ‘A spot check: casting doubt on the demobilizing effect of attack advertising‘, American Journal of Political Science, 42(2): 573-595.

[xii] Martin, P. (2004) ‘Inside the black box of negative campaign effects: Three reasons why negative campaigns mobilize‘, Political Psychology, 25(4): 545-562.

[xiii] Lau, R. R. and Pomper, G. M. (2004) Negative Campaigning: An Analysis of U.S. Senate Elections, Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield; Lau, R. R., Siegelman, L. and Rovner, I. B. (2007) ‘The effects of negative political campaigns: a meta-analytic reassessment‘, The Journal of Politics, 69(4): 1176-1209; Lau, R. R., Siegelman, L., Heldman, C. and Babbit, P. (1999) ‘The effects of negative advertisement: A meta-analytic assessment‘, The American Political Science Review, 93(4): 851-875.

[xiv] Nai, A. and Walter, A. S. (Eds.) (2015) New perspectives on negative campaigning: why attack politics matters, Colchester: ECPR Press Studies in European Political Science.

[xv] Min, Y. (2004) ‘News coverage of negative political campaigns: An experiment of negative campaigns effects on turnout and candidate preferences‘, The International Journal of Press/Politics, 9(4): 27-38.

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

[xvii] Brooks, D. J. and Geer, J. G. (2007) ‘Beyond negativity: The effects of incivility on the electorate‘, American Journal of Political Science, 51(1): 1-16.

[xviii] Fridkin, K. L. and Kenney, P. J. (2011) ‘Variability in Citizens’ Reactions to Different Types of Negative Campaigns‘, American Journal of Political Science, 55(2): 307-325.

[xix] Nai, A. (2013) ‘What really matters is which camp goes dirty. Differential effects of negative campaigning on turnout during Swiss federal ballots‘, European Journal of Political Research, 52(1): 44-70.

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