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Category: Negative Campaigning

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but more importantly it referred to Løkke’s prior problems separating his private and professional expenses (see an archived version of the campaign’s web page).

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).

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. 

Negativity: The Campaign Promise That No British Party Kept

By Caitlin Milazzo and Jesse Hammond

The 2015 general election campaign was rife with promises. Amidst those made about immigration, the NHS, and Britain’s relationship with Europe, we also heard repeated pledges from party leaders that their campaigns were – and would remain – positive. The reality, however, was quite different. By the start of the short campaign, many Tories were expressing concern that the party’s negative campaigning was having a detrimental effect on support and would prevent David Cameron from securing a majority in Parliament. Cameron was quick to defend his party’s positive message, but his defence sounded hollow when he went on to warn the public of the potential dangers of an SNP-Labour alliance in the same interview.

Someone listening to that interview might have questioned the Prime Minister’s definition of a negativity. While his statements were arguably not overly personal or derogatory, his message was most certainly negative in that it contained a less-than-flattering message about his party’s opponents – and that is the classic definition of a negative appeal. Discussing your opponent(s) can take many forms. For example, you might refer to their policy positions, qualifications (or lack thereof), or in the case of a sitting MP, to their previous record. But the content is almost always negative in the sense that it focuses on the weaknesses of the opponent.

Negative campaigning in Turkey

Written by Emre Toros.

The highly competitive and rapidly changing scenery of electoral activity throughout the world seems to be more chaotic than ever. In different contexts, political actors test various tools in order to influence the voter preferences. Operating in this diverse environment, these actors still have to decide on one common and crucial aspect of their electoral campaigns: whether to prioritise their own assets or draw attention to the weaknesses of their rivals. This decisive choice is conceptualised under the categories of positive and negative campaigning. Recently, the latter, namely the negative campaigning, attracted an increased attention both from academic and non-academic circles.  In that sense, Turkey seems to be an interesting case. The Turkish Republic has been a multiparty democracy since the mid-1940s and although it has been interrupted by three military coups, the party and election system in Turkey has brought real alternations in the government from the very early years of the multiparty system.

Negative campaigning in Austria: Abundant, colorful and ingenious

Written by Marcelo Jenny and Martin Haselmayer.

Systematic empirical research on negative campaigning in Austria has focused on the past decade (Dolezal et al. 2015). It has demonstrated that a lot of unfriendly rhetorical sniping is exchanged not only across the government – opposition divide, but also between coalition partners, especially in SPÖ-ÖVP coalitions. Figure 1, which is based on party press releases, shows that the two largest Austrian parties traded a lot of negative messages during the last four national election campaigns, no matter whether they were in government together (2008, 2013) or not (2002, 2006).

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Going negative in Germany – but why and with which effects?

Written by Jürgen Maier.

Most scholars agree that in many countries there is a high amount of negative messages in political elites’ campaign communication. Moreover, some experts even find a steady increase of negative campaigning. But why do candidates opt (more and more) for attacks instead of sending positive campaign messages? And do such negative campaign strategies really work?

Although there are a vast number of studies on negative campaigning, both questions have not been fully answered yet. On the one hand, there is a serious lack of research on negativity outside the United States. Because society, politics, and the media in the U.S. are very different from European countries, it might be inappropriate to simply transfer our knowledge about negativity from one culture to another without prior verification. On the other hand, research on negative campaigning is basically research on campaign advertising. No matter if we look at the United States or at other countries, there is remarkably little evidence on the use and the impact of attacks in other campaign messages.