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Negative Campaigns and their Media Coverage: The Danish Case

Written by Christian Elmelund-Præstekær.

Negative campaigning is a great topic! At least it is one of the few research areas within political science that survives more than a two-minute pitch at family parties. The subject seems to fascinate people – for better and for worse – and my mother, my hairdresser, and my biking comrades all have an opinion about parties’ and politicians’ negative rhetoric. Nevertheless, the first systematic studies of negativity in Denmark were published only seven years ago (Elmelund-Præstekær 2008; Hansen & Pedersen 2008); and still common wisdom, sensational stories, and myths shape everyday conversations about the negative form of political campaigning.

One of the most strong-lived beliefs is that contemporary elections are more negative than historic elections. During the Danish parliamentary election campaign in June 2015, I was called by numerous journalists who wanted an expert’s explanation of the “extraordinary” negativity that was unfolding as we spoke. One of the two most salient cases of negative campaigning was launched by the then-incumbent Social Democratic Party as a direct attack on its main opponent, the chairman of the Liberal Party, Lars Løkke Rasmussen. The campaign asked “who’s gonna pay Løkke’s bills?” referring explicitly to a range of lay-offs in the welfare state, and implicitly but more importantly it referred to Løkke’s prior problems separating his private and professional expenses (see an archived version of the campaign’s web page).

The other salient negative campaign was not so much a campaign as it was a teasing rhetoric leveled by the then-Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt: whenever Thorning-Schmidt wanted to demonstrate Løkke’s lack of trustworthiness she would refer to the so-called “Panorama” case. In the beginning of the campaign Løkke cited an anonymous employee who resigned his job in the private company Panorama – which offered facility and cleaning services – because his full-time job paid only marginally better than public unemployment benefits. Since the employee did not step forward, Thorning-Schmidt insinuated that Løkke perhaps had made the story up to support his strict economic policies.

Whether the 2015 campaign was in fact more negative than ever before remains unknown as the campaign has not yet been systematic analyzed. I remain skeptical, however, as any current campaign has been seen as much more negative than the previous. For instance, the 2011 national election was believed to be the most negative to date – but having analyzed it, a colleague and I concluded that it was in fact the least negative election in our sample of elections in the 1970s, the 1990s and the 2000s (Elmelund-Præstekær & Svensson 2014a). The average negativity in campaign communication controlled by Danish parties has oscillated around 30 per cent since the early 1970s, reaching occasional peaks in 1977 and 1994 (34 per cent) and the mentioned low-point in 2011 (22 per cent).

So why is campaign after campaign perceived as ever more negative? One reason might be the invention of new social media allowing politicians to communicate directly to voters in a quick and cheap manner. We did not include such media in our analysis because it only was relevant in the most recent elections. Moreover, only few Danes follow candidates on Twitter or Facebook (Elmelund-Præstekær & Hopmann 2012) so this explanation is partial at best. Another reason might be that the nastiness of negative communication has accelerated; our measure of negativity only capture the direction and not the specific content of the statements which means that we cannot tell the difference between someone who accuses an opponent for being a lying drunkard and someone who cite scientific data to prove that an opponent’s policy is ineffective. This measurement problem is common to most studies of negative campaigning (Brooks & Geer 2007), but having read transcripts of heated TV debates form the 1970s, I am not sure that candidates are harsher on each other today than they were forty years ago.

Thus, we tested a third explanation of the difference between the empirical results and the public perception of the prevalence of negative campaigns (Elmelund-Præstekær & Svensson 2014b). Taking cue of good colleagues’ demonstration of a negativity bias in the news media (Ridout & Franz 2008 ; Walter & Vliegenthart 2010), we took two steps further; first by comparing the share of negative messages in televised election debates with the share of negative messages from the debates that journalists afterwards chose to cite in the news. Second, we traced the temporal development in the media’s negativity bias. The remarkable finding was that whereas the media did not amplify the parties’ negativity in 1994, they almost doubled up the negativity in 2011. Viewers who followed the debates in their entirety on TV would find that approximately one third of the politicians’ messages were negative. Voters who only read about the debates in the newspaper, however, would find that almost two thirds of the politicians’ messages were negative.

In sum; the common notion that politics become tougher and tougher is at least in part caused by the media’s increased coverage of the negative aspects of politicians’ communication rather than substantial changes in this communication. More empirical work is needed, however, to draw final conclusions and prove my mother and my hairdresser wrong (or right) about the temporal development in negative campaigning in Denmark – and other European counties for that matter. An obvious next step would be to empirically test the rival explanations mentioned above.

Christian Elmelund-Præstekær is an Associate Professor and Head of Study at the University of Southern Denmark. This article forms part of a Center for British Politics (CPB) special issue on negative campaigning. Image credit: CC by MPD01605/Flickr.


Brooks, Deborah Jones and John G. Geer. 2007. “Beyond Negativity: The Effects of Incivility on the Electorate.” American Journal of Political Science 51(1): 1-16.

Elmelund-Præstekær, Christian. 2008. “Negative Campaigning in a Multiparty System.” Representation 44(1): 27-39.

Elmelund-Præstekær, Christian and David Nicolas Hopmann. 2012. “Vælgernes kilder til viden om kommunalvalget” in KV09: Kommunalvalg i strukturreformens skygge, eds. Jørgen Elklit and Ulrik Kjær. Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag.

Elmelund-Præstekær, Christian and Helle Mølgaard Svensson. 2014a. “Ebbs and Flows of Negative Campaigning: A Longitudinal Study of the Influence of Contextual Factors on Danish Campaign Rhetoric.” European Journal of Communication 20(2): 230-239.

Elmelund-Præstekær, Christian and Helle Mølgaard Svensson. 2014b. “Negative and Personalized Campaign Rhetoric: Party Communication in and Media Coverage of Danish Parliamentary Elections 1994-2011.” World Political Science Review 11(2): 365-384.

Hansen, Kasper Møller and Rasmus Tue Pedersen. 2008. “Negative Campaigning in a Multiparty System.” Scandinavian Political Studies 31(4): 408-427.

Ridout, Travis N. and Michael Franz. 2008. “Evaluating Measures of Campaign Tone.” Political Communication 25(2): 158-179.

Walter, Annemarie S. and Rens Vliegenthart. 2010. “Negative Campaigning across Different Communication Channels: Different Ball Games?” International Journal of Press/Politics 15(4): 441-461.


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