The Psychology Behind Political Debate

How politicians use psychology, and what it means for democracy.

Threat and Anxiety --- Why Negative Political Attack Ads Work

The political attack ad --- how threatening voters works.

I often get asked why candidates resort to negative campaign attacks.  

The answer is simple.  Candidates use negative attacks because they work.  By threatening voters, by making them anxious, afraid, and fearful, candidates can win elections.

Negative campaigning has long been part of politics, and we are now seeing it in California's Republican gubernatorial race.

A controversial attack ad now running in California comes from Steve Poizner's campaign; Poizner has trailed Meg Whitman for a long time in the Republican race for their party's gubernatorial nomination, but with the primary not far off and indications that Whitman's once solid lead in the polls is eroding, Poizner is now on the attack.

The ad in question is called "Top Priority", and here it is:

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So, let's break this ad down into it's components. 

The ad begins with President Obama standing next to Mexican President Calderon, with Obama saying "We are defined not by our borders."

The next part of the ad has Obama in a black and white shot, with the words "If Barack Obama won't defend our borders, WHO WILL?"

Then there is a segment with Poizner talking during a debate, accusing Whitman of supporting amnesty, including a scene with an out-of-focus Whitman, hair whirling around her in the breeze, standing near what looks like a wall and fence (the border?), talking about a "fair program, where people stand at the back of the line, they pay a fine", with text at the bottom saying "WHITMAN/OBAMA AMNESTY PLAN".  

Finally, there is more of Poizner criticizing Whitman during this same debate.

This ad is aimed at conservative Republican voters who are either undecided, or who might be supporting Whitman, but who in the aftermath of the passage of the Arizona law might have the immigration issue in mind. This ad seeks to equate Whitman with Obama and Calderon, to associate Whitman with the notion of amnesty, but primarily it aims to threaten these voters, to generate fear and anxiety about Whitman's (and Obama's) supposed unwillingness to "defend our borders."  

Threat and anxiety are powerful stuff in political campaigns, and recent research that our group has participated in has shown that these negative emotions are strong predictors of candidate support and voting behavior.  We recently published a paper in the journal Political Psychology, where we found that "the candidates chosen as more likely to physically threaten the subjects actually lost 65% of the real elections (involving those same candidates)."  

The Poizner ad is similar to an infamous television ad that Pete Wilson used in his 1994 gubernatorial bid in California called "They Keep Coming."  Here's the Wilson ad:

 

Notice just how similar the threat is in the Wilson ad --- the focus on the immigration issue, the use of poorly-focused black and white footage, the dramatic music, the threat that the federal government is not defending the borders. That was a powerful ad, one that observers argue helped Wilson get reelected in 1994, but which also pushed large numbers of Latinos in California away from the Republican party and which solidified Democratic control of California in recent years.

The ultimate political implications of Poizner's ad are not clear at this point, but like Wilson (and other candidates who "go negative") he is playing the politics of threat and anxiety.  

R. Michael Alvarez, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science at the California Institute of Technology.

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