Comparing the Effectiveness of Positive and Negative Political Campaigns

By Peter A. Gregory
2015, Vol. 7 No. 11 | pg. 1/2 |

In the United States, Americans elect 50 governors, roughly a third of the U.S. Senate’s 100 members, all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and, every four years, a president. Together, these are the most high profile elections in the United States, and they amount to approximately 540 elections in total. While numerous other elections also take place throughout the country at lower levels, these 540 elections generally garner the most media attention, and those campaigning in these elections generally spend significantly more money than do others running for public office.

One way in which said money is used is advertising for and by the respective candidates. While candidates in these elections often receive the benefit of free media attention and publicity due to the importance of the elections in which they are running, it is not uncommon to hear or see ads aimed at helping different candidates gain the majority of a specific vote. However, recently, it seems, this publicity is used less and less to espouse the virtues of a specific candidate and his or her views on relevant issues, and more and more to attack or belittle the character of that candidate’s opponent.

For example, once the 2004 presidential election came to a close, many scholars and journalists concluded that “it had been the worst the country had ever experienced because of the harshness, fear appeals, lying and distortion in attack spots” that were sponsored by various organizations campaigning for either Bush or Kerry (Trent, Friedenberg, & Denton, 2011, p. 159). Indeed, some believed that both candidates “spent more time and money criticizing each other than they did talking about their own virtues” (Trent, Friedenberg, & Denton, 2011, p. 159).

Can candidates win elections by running positive campaigns?

The purpose of this paper is to examine the history and science of these campaigns to determine whether or not such methods are more or less effective than a candidate simply sticking to their own message and running a “positive campaign.” Based on logic, basic rules and trends in human psychology, anecdotal evidence, and the evidence amassed by social scientists regarding the subject, I contend that candidates will do better at the ballot box as a result of positive campaigning than they will if they continuously perforate their own campaigns with emphasis on their opponent’s flaws.

Defining Campaign Types

For the purpose of this paper, a positive campaign is a campaign in which a candidate focuses primarily on relevant issues, their own views, their own experiences, and their own virtues, without attacking their opponent in an attempt to gain votes. It should be noted that, in contrast to positive campaigns, a negative campaign is one where a candidate uses attack ads and rhetoric to deliberately frame his opponent as foolish, inexperienced, irresponsible, disconnected, or evil as a means of presenting him or herself as a more desirable alternative to said opponent.

These types of campaigns are nothing new. Kamber (1997) points out that negative campaigns go at least as far back as Cicero and the Roman Republic (p. 9). In the United States, specifically, “smear campaigns have a long and dishonorable tradition, all the way back to the first contested American presidential election in 1800” (Warren, 2012, p. 436).

The definition of “positive campaign” used here is in contrast to other definitions that allow for and even encourage “fact-based” criticism of an opponent, claiming it as fair, necessary, and informative to the average voter. (Warren, 2012, p. 436; Kamber, 1997, p. 7). This is intentional given the high profile of the campaigns being examined and the logical assumption that if there were anything truly scandalous that the public needed to be made aware of, the media would do so independently, effectively removing the “need” for a candidate to do so.

Also, given that every criticism of an opponent in a campaign, whether “constructive,” “factual,” or otherwise, is meant to deface him or her, definitions of “positive campaigns” that allow for such criticism make it difficult to draw a line that would allow us to recognize a truly positive campaign from a politely negative one.

Lessons from Human Psychology

In democracies, elections are essentially popularity contests – the possible exception among the elections under examination here being presidential elections, which have the Electoral College to complicate things and make it possible for a candidate to win the popular vote and still lose an election. This is, however, a single and unlikely exception among the other 539 elections being discussed. If, then, the goal of candidates is to get the majority of voters to “like” them, psychology would support the argument that their best option would be to behave and campaign positively. After all, “people feel closer and more connected to others when they experience positive emotions,” making them “more likely to make favorable judgements” of those people (Cabrera, 2012, p. 51). Accordingly, “positive people are more likely to be selected for desirable jobs” (Staw, 2013, p. 180).

People naturally prefer positive people to negative ones. They naturally respond better to those who are kind than those who are not. Logically, then, the ideal strategy for a candidate would be to make his or her campaign as positive and as cordial as possible. It is difficult to believe that politicians are totally unaware of these principles as so many campaigns are built around rhetoric of change and hope, yet it remains an indisputable fact that many politicians could employ a great deal more cordiality and professional courtesy in their campaigns. If it can be accepted as fact that “people prefer to experience positive emotions more than negative ones” (Dalakas, Madrigal, & Anderson, 2004, p. 69), it can logically be assumed that voters will be more likely to vote for leaders who make them feel positive emotions than for those who either fail to do so or make them feel negative emotions.

The best way for a candidate to increase favorability among voters is to run a positive campaign.

Accordingly, one way candidates can maximize the positivity of their campaigns is by eliminating those parts of their campaigns that make people feel negative emotion. While negative ads and rhetoric are meant to make voters associate negative emotions with a candidate’s opponent, voters are intelligent enough to realize that the source of said ads and rhetoric is not the candidate being attacked but the candidate running against him or her. Accordingly, running a negative campaign can easily backfire on those who use them. One study found that after being presented with various remarks made by different candidates during a recent political campaign, “explicit evaluations of the source, but not the opponent, were less favorable after negative as compared to positive campaigns.

In contrast, implicit evaluations were less favorable for both candidates after negative campaigns” (Carraro, Gawronski, & Castelli, 2010, p. 453). In other words, a candidate employing negative rhetoric implicitly made both candidates less appealing and explicitly made only him or herself less appealing, suggesting that the use of such rhetoric is actually more helpful to a candidate’s opponent than it is for them. In contrast, another study showed that positive ads “proved more effective in increasing both the sponsoring candidate’s favorability and participants’ reported likelihood of voting him” (Donahue, 2011, p. 1). The results of both studies, then, indicate that the best way for a candidate to increase favorability among voters is to run a positive campaign.

Lessons from Voter Behavior

Much has been written about voters’ attitudes towards elections, their perceptions, and how positive and negative campaigns affect voters differently. Several important insights are reported by Lipsitz et al. (2005):

Americans love to hate political campaigns. Majorities believe that “negative, attack-oriented campaigning is undermining and damaging our democracy” (82%), that unethical practices in campaigns occur “very” or “fairly” often (58%), and that “in terms of ethics and values, election campaigns in this country have gotten worse in the last 20 years” (53%). (p. 338)

The insight that the overwhelming majority of voters believe negative campaigns undermine and damage democracy is the most relevant to our analysis. This perception held among voters is largely supported by a myriad of studies as being factual. Basil, Schooler, and Reeves (1991) found that “data suggest that candidates who run negative ads ‘turn voters off’ to both candidates” (p. 256), and in the book Going Negative: How Campaign Advertising Shrinks and Polarizes the Electorate, authors Ansolabehere and Iyenger (1996) systematically show how such effects cause the overall number of engaged voters to decrease as a result. Kahn and Kenny (1999) found that “when campaigns degenerate into unsubstantiated and shrill attacks, voters tend to stay home” (p. 877), and Min (2004) found that “personality attacks” between politicians “significantly depress” voters’ intentions to participate in elections (p. 95).

Negative campaigning reduces the total number of citizens involved in democratic elections, thus undermining the power of the people to voice their opinions.

Each of these studies indicate that negative campaigning reduces the total number of citizens involved in democratic elections, thus undermining the power of the people to voice their opinions. Results from yet another study specifically intended to measure the effects of positive and negative campaigning in young democracies “confirmed that negative advertising reduces participation, regime support, and candidate support” and additionally showed that “while attack advertising did not affect participation rates for higher education groups, subjects with little political knowledge were vulnerable to being pushed out of politics” (Desposato, 2007, p. 12-13), indicating that the effect such ads have on voters is mediated somewhat by education levels.

Showing that negative campaigns reduce voter turnout during elections does not indicate that positive campaigns are a better strategic choice for would-be politicians. However, hand in hand with studies showing that “more positive campaigns have higher participation rates” (Ansolabehere, Iyengar, & Simon, 1999, p. 905) and that positive campaigns in past elections “boosted turnout” (Ansolabehere et al., 1994, p. 833), the evidence logically points to just such an explanation. If the positivity of a candidate’s campaign increases the total number of voters making their way to the polls, the odds are that the majority of the voters included in that increase will vote for the candidate whose positivity wrested them to vote in the first place.

Despite the evidence discussed above, it would be unfair to leave the impression that the answer to the question of how positive and negative campaigns affect voter turnout is one upon which the majority of scholars agree. Indeed, several studies exist that contradict the depressing effect of negative campaigns and the mobilizing effect of positive ones. Goldstein and Freedman (2002) argue that “exposure to negative campaign ads actually stimulates voter turnout” (p. 721).

This argument is corroborated by Martin (2004), who shows that “negative campaigns stimulate problem awareness, stimulate anxiety about candidates, and make people perceive races as closer” thereby making negative campaigns more likely to mobilize voters (p. 557). A more recent meta-analysis of the studies regarding the subject found that there is no “reliable evidence that negative campaigning depresses voter turnout,” but additionally concludes that “all told, the research literature does not bear out the idea that negative campaigning is an effective means of winning votes” (Lau, Sigelman, & Rovner, 2007, p. 1176). While perhaps not as powerful as the argument that negative campaigning demobilizes voters, this analysis still suggests, or at least leaves room for the argument, that positive campaigns are more effective than negative campaigns.

It is beneficial to note here the various research methods employed by scholars on either side of the argument. Unsurprisingly, differing methods in research can often lead to differing results. In the case at hand, “evidence supporting the idea that negative campaigning discourages voter turnout comes primarily from experimental research, whereas evidence supporting the idea that negative campaigning encourages voter turnout comes from survey research” (Martin, 2004, p. 545-46).

While both forms of research have limitations, it should be noted that “experimental research is generally considered to be the most rigorous of the basic research methods. Unlike historical and survey methods, experimental research is considered capable of supporting causal relationships” (Powell, 1997, p. 141). As such, if research is conducted using an experimental design, it generally means that we can have “more faith” in the findings of that research (Bailey, 2008, p. 219). Accordingly, the experimental research showing a demobilizing effect for negative campaigns and a mobilizing effect for positive campaigns largely retains its significance in spite of conflicting studies.

Lessons from Individual Campaigns

In 1958, Ken Hechler, a 44 year old political science professor at Marshall College in Huntington, West Virginia, ran a successful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. His victory surprised many. After all, when he entered the race he was a plain looking bachelor who had never run a campaign before, had no backing from any politicians or organized labor groups, had only lived in his congressional district for a year before he started campaigning, and was campaigning against two candidates who had both been born and raised in the district, one of whom was a two-time Congressman and distinguished obstetrician (Cohn, 1959).

Ken worked tirelessly. Given the fact that hardly anyone in his district new who he was, and the other disadvantages already discussed, he also had to be quite creative in order to get publicity. After winning his first election, Hechler served as a representative of West Virginia for 18 years, and later as the West Virginia Secretary of State for an additional 16 years. This means that over 34 years of service as an elected public official, Hechler won over a dozen elections. Hechler had 10 rules for his campaign, rules to which he attributes much of his success. The third of these rules was “Be constructive and campaign cleanly” (Political Rules, p. 15). This he did. The results speak for themselves.

As recently as 2012, Deb Fischer, a rancher, became “the first woman ever to be elected in Nebraska to a full six-year term in the senate” (Walton, 2012). In the primaries, she won despite being greatly outspent by two notable opponents (Tysver, 2012), and in the general election, she won despite running against a former two-term senator and governor of the state, Bob Kerrey. During the campaign, even though she was faced with negative campaigning from her opponent, who aired ads “portraying Fischer as a rancher who sued her neighbor in an attempted ‘land grab,” she “steadily delivered a conservative message,” running a positive campaign focused on issues (Walton, 2012).

As the results rolled in on election-day, Fischer was congratulated by Nebraska Governor Dave Heinemann and Senator Mike Johanns for “her campaign’s positive tone in the face of a deluge of attack ads” (Bamesberger, 2012). As Tysver (2012) notes, “her strategy from the beginning was to remain positive.” It worked. In the words of Kay Orr, the first female governor of Nebraska, Fischer “carried herself with such dignity. She taught young people in [Nebraska] that you can win by taking the high road” (qtd. in Bamesberger, 2012).

Also in 2012, Pat McCory was elected as North Carolina’s first republican governor in 20 years. Although he had lost the previous race in 2008, “McCrory decided to run again, and this time he promised to run an only positive campaign” (Ambramo et al., 2012). He made good on his promise.

During his campaign McCrory never ran one negative TV or radio ad against his opponent, Walter Dalton. In every ad his campaign created he talked about what he wanted to do as governor of North Carolina, his policies, his issues, and his plan for the future. (Ambramo et al., 2012)

According to McCrory, this strategy, one he’s used before, allows him to “build a relationship with people” (qtd. in Weisbecker, 2012), making it easier for voters to trust him. This certainly seems to be the case as his campaign won him the endorsement of several prominent democrats, one of whom, Representative Dewey Hill from North Carolina’s 20th district, applauded the positivity of McCrory’s campaign, stating that he believed it spoke “volumes about [McCrory’s] integrity, trustworthiness and ability to lead and bring people together, not divide them” (qtd. in Hudson, 2012). In his first news conference as the state’s new governor, McCrory attributed his election to the fact that he ran a positive campaign, stating that candidates “can win with a positive message… A positive tone helps candidates” (qtd. in WRAL News, 2012).

Each of these three individuals ran positive campaigns. Each of these individuals won the campaigns they were in. Each of these individuals, along with their various supporters, believe that they were better for having campaigned cleanly and that they won their elections, in part at least, because they refrained from negativity and campaigned positively. Of course, the campaigns discussed here are just three examples from the thousands of high profile campaigns that have been conducted throughout the United States.

Positive campaigning is more likely to garner a candidate a larger number of voters and said voters will also be more trusting of and optimistic about the candidate they choose to support due to the positivity of his or her campaign.

As such, and because of the complexity of such campaigns, it cannot be definitively said that the electoral success of these individuals is due exclusively to the manner in which they conducted their campaigns. However, these campaigns do show that positive campaigning is a viable option, and point to the fact that it is more beneficial than the alternative – that positive campaigning is more likely to garner a candidate a larger number of voters and that said voters will also be more trusting of and optimistic about the candidate they choose to support due to the positivity of his or her campaign.

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