The Negativity Hullabaloo

by David Gastwirth

This week’s Road to the White House examined the nature and function of negative advertising in the campaign.  This topic is particularly relevant and timely in light of a finding by the Wesleyan Media Project that the 2012 Presidential Race is the most negative since 2000.  The numbers are pretty remarkable.  The percentage of positive presidential television advertisements – defined as spots that only mention the favored candidate – in this campaign has fallen by more than half since 2008 (32% to 14%).  In fact, 62% of ads in this campaign season have been pure attack ads.  And there is no reason to believe that the campaign will become more positive as we get closer to the election.  During September, a mere 7.8% of ads were positive in nature.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that this is serious cause for concern.  There is the fear that the abrasiveness and mean-spiritedness of American campaigns lead to voter cynicism and mistrust of the government.

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But maybe we should not resort to gloom and doom.  Negative advertisements – defined as those containing criticism of an opponent – are not all alike. Negative ads can be either attack (spots criticizing the opposition) or contrast (those criticizing the opposition and presenting the candidate’s own perspective).  There is a growing body of research that points to positive aspects of negativity, particularly negative ads of the comparative variety.

In a press release with the dramatic new figures about campaign negativity this cycle, Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, said the following: “The rise in negativity also means that there is a lot of substantive policy-based information on the air to help inform voters.”  It may come as a surprise to some that attack ads actually tend to be more focused on substantive policy issues.  A study by Kathleen Jamieson and colleagues published as a chapter in Crowded Airwaves: Campaign Advertising in Elections (2000: Brookings Institution Press) revealed that 42% of attack ads focused on policy, as compared to 39% of contrast ads content and 32% of advocacy or positive ads.  Darrell West offers an explanation for this on page 70 of Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-2000 (2001: Congressional Quarterly Press): “Negative commercials are more likely to have policy-oriented content because campaigners need a clear reason to attack the opponent.”  This is interesting in light of a point raised during our panel about the heightened accountability faced by campaigns in an era of political blogs and 24-hour news.  And one should expect this media environment only to heighten the informational advantage of negative campaign strategies because the policy content that is presented must be more accurate.

To make this point about the relative “emptiness” of positive campaign advertisements, you don’t have to look much further than one of the most legendary political advertisements.  The narration of Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike” (1952) offers little more than a catchy, yet vapid, refrain: “You like Ike, I like Ike, Everybody likes Ike for president. Hang out the banners, beat the drums, we’ll take Ike to Washington.”  But much like many American’s look upon the Reagan Era with nostalgia, Reagan’s “Morning in America” (1984) offers a model for a positive advertisement with (some) policy relevance. I would share some of the transcript, but you have to watch the video to get the full message and the warm feeling. Negative campaign advertisements also get a bad rap because some of the most famous – or infamous – campaign advertisements draw on our more primitive emotions.  Johnson’s “Peace Girl – Daisy” (1964) essentially told voters that they better vote for LBJ or the kids are going to get it: “These are the stakes: To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the darkness.  We must either love each other, or we must die.”  I am not sure that you can call this advertisement informative.

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Negative ads are not only more informative, they are also a better medium for conveying information.  A number of psychological studies have shown that negative information is easier to retrieve than positive information during information processing, negative stimuli exert greater power in informational processing, and negative information is remembered more long-term. Social psychologists label this phenomenon “automatic vigilance.”  Therefore, if elections are supposed to transmit policy-related information, negative advertising might be a better mechanism to serve that purpose.

So why all the hullabaloo about negativity?  As one of the panelists noted, it seems that negative personality attacks – as opposed to policy-focused advertisements – are coming to dominate campaign advertisements this season.  Mitt Romney’s business career has taken center stage in this campaign, and the Obama Campaign and the Super PACs supporting it have worked hard to paint Romney as a bloodsucker and an elitist.  The “Jeremiah Wright Card” is starting to rear its ugly head once again, although Romney has been highly critical of supporters that have resorted to that type of messaging.  But the first debate does not play into the “most negative campaign ever” narrative, managing to be both substantive and civil.  Nobody has been “Swift-boated” in this campaign despite the unprecedented level of spending by insiders and, most notably, unaffiliated groups.  So those proclaiming a shift towards personality attacks may be misguided.

Here is where I come down on the campaign negativity issue.  Negativity is essential to a responsive democratic system.  Without the ability to inform voters of a candidate’s record on issues or professional shortcomings, voters are being denied the totality of information that is required to make an informed decision.  Retrospective voting is an important decision-making mechanism, and being critical of a candidate’s stance on issues is part of a healthy election dialogue.  In one sense, candidates have a duty as citizens to use negative politicking to expose the flaws of an opponent that might hinder their ability to govern or tarnish the office to which they are seeking.  Additionally, comparative advertisements help voters identify differences – particularly on policy matters – between candidates.  With the public’s unprecedented access to media information, one can only hope that voters are critical consumers of the media messages.  But negative ads can at least spark an interest.  Personality attacks are bad, but we would be ill-served by only supporting positive puff pieces.  Given the role of outside groups – and their money – in campaign advertising, there is not much that can be done, anyway.  So let’s stop worrying about the tone and tenor of the campaign – and get back to figuring out how to fix the economy.



“I Like Ike” via The Living Room Candidate

“Morning in America” via The Living Room Candidate

“Peace Girl – Daisy” via The Living Room Candidate

Romney Rejects Using the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Against Obama via The New York Times