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The Necessity of Negativity

Written by David Redlawsk and Kyle Mattes.

Finally, as regards the Roman masses, be sure to put on a good show. . . It also wouldn’t hurt to remind them of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.

—Purported to be from Quintus Cicero to his brother Marcus, advising him on his campaign for Roman Consul, 64BCE

How do you feel about negative campaigning? If you’re like most Americans, you probably don’t feel so good about it. Americans (and others, we suspect) readily tell pollsters that they are negative about negativity. Polling in the 1990s and early 2000s consistently reported such results: for example, 61% were “very much” bothered by negative campaigning, and 60% claimed negative ads make people feel less like voting. The polling consensus was so clear that few pollsters even bother asking about negativity any more. We just know voters hate it.

And while its pedigree is long and distinguished—as Cicero’s experience might remind us—candidates worry about it too. Campaign consultants strategize about when to go negative, how to go negative, and how intensely to attack. In the U.S., the multi-candidate Republican primary is making these choices quite difficult. An advertisement that attacks, for example, Jeb Bush, will help every candidate not named Jeb Bush—so there’s an incentive for campaigns to hope that other campaigns handle the dirty work. It’s challenging to both provide negative information and be the main beneficiary, but a debate is likely the best format in which to accomplish both. Of course if you engage, there’s the risk that the opponent will win the argument.

Some candidates try to use promises to not go negative as badges of honor. In the current U.S. Presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders says he will not engage in negative campaigning. Yet in a recent speech to the Iowa Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson dinner crowd, he spent much of his time taking not-so-subtle swipes at frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

In past years candidates have signed mutual “clean election” pledges, meant to stave off negativity. Such pledges are routinely violated. Why?

Political campaigns result in clearly demarcated winners and losers. With so much on the line, a candidate needs to make the best possible case for herself—to explain why she should be elected and why her opponent shouldn’t. Who better to make that case?

Our book, The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning (2014, University of Chicago Press), builds on a range of formal and empirical work to show the value of negativity. First off, we dispel the “wisdom” that voters hate negativity. We do this by asking better questions. “How do you feel about negative campaigning?” is not a very good question. How many people do you think are going to respond positively about something that has just been called “negative”?

Instead we ask if voters see value in what negativity does: it provides information about an opponent’s actions or positions in a way that contrasts with what the attacker would do. As it turns out, this approach does not bother voters very much at all… provided that it is done well.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 08.56.40

In fact, as shown in the graphic, most voters find information about an opponent’s record to be helpful. And they find contrasts—“negative” talk about the differences on political issues between a candidate and her opponent—to be especially helpful. Both of these, of course, are considered negative campaigning. You might also find it surprising that saying things about one’s own governing plans, which is “positive” campaigning, was considered to be less helpful.

Of course, not every attack is successful—sometimes they go too far. In particular attacks on family members and an opponent’s religious faith (see above) will generally backfire. Also, voters do not embrace candidates complaining about how negative an opponent has been to them. In other words, if your opponent goes negative, voters are not likely to be impressed if you whine about it. We have to be careful in claiming voters are not particularly bothered by negativity—they are bothered if the negativity seems relevant to the criteria they use to make a choice.

We believe that negativity helps voters make better decisions in competitive elections. As a result, rather than offering to defend negativity in campaigns, we embrace it. We want voters to be as fully informed as possible, or at least have the opportunity to be. Voters often have difficult decisions to make. In the Republican primary, for example, more than ten candidates have been vying for the party’s nomination.

Our argument is relatively simple. First, if candidates have faults or have made mistakes, voters ought to know about this. Second, and we think this is self-evident, no candidate will ever tell you anything bad about herself. She will just stay silent rather than call attention to her own existing faults. Third, unless the opponent is able to “go negative” and point out the faults, this very silence ensures voters will be less than fully informed.

But, you’re a smart voter, right? You can reasonably infer that there are problems in the areas the candidate ignores. Or can you? It actually takes a lot of wisdom to infer something from what is not said. If it were easy, Arthur Conan Doyle would not have gotten so much mileage from a story about the “curious incident” that a dog didn’t bark in the night. Most of us are not as good as Sherlock Holmes. Most of us are simply not good at making inferences from what is left unsaid, in part because many things are left unsaid. Negativity helps us solve the case.

What would the world look like without negative campaigning? For one, we’re pretty sure that incumbents would sleep better at night knowing that challengers couldn’t attack their records. Of course we can’t test this in the real world—the counterfactual is missing. Competitive elections almost always include negative campaigning. How can we figure out what voters can learn from what candidates do not say? What does silence convey?

In the book, we answer these questions with by testing a formal model of the informational value of negativity in campaigns. In our model, a candidate who has a “bad” position on dimension X (e.g., tax reform) simply chooses not to campaign on that dimension. Is that a sign the candidate holds an untenable position? Sophisticated voters can figure this out, but naïve voters cannot. If most voters are naïve (and we show they are) then candidates must go negative in order to fill an otherwise incomplete information environment.

But, for those who rue this finding, at least we can leave you with one more positive message: our evidence shows that voters give more scrutiny to negative campaigns and treat them more skeptically than they do positive campaigns, which means such campaigns engage voters to a greater degree and have the potential to make them better informed!

David P. Redlawsk is a Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, Kyle Mattes is assistant professor of political science at the University of Iowa and are the authors of the book, The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning. This article is part of the Centre for British Politics (CPB) research series into negative campaigning. Image credit: Screencap/CNBC.

Published inInternational Politics

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