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Why Do Politicians Always Attack Each Other?

Candidates engage in negative attacks because they work.

As we get deeper into the 2012 political season, it's looking like it is going to be a hotly contested and potentially divisive presidential campaign.

Recent events in the U.S. presidential race have brought concerns about negative attacks to the forefront. For example, there was the sparring between Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry about Perry's executive order requiring that school-aged girls get the HPV vaccine. Then Herman Cain came under attack. And Barack Obama's campaign has begun to attack Mitt Romney in earnest.

In this context, I know that people wonder about negative political attacks, why candidates engage in negative politics, and whether it matters. The answer is pretty simple. Candidates engage in negative attacks because they work.

There is plenty of research that shows that negative attacks work.

A classic in this area is the book, Going Negative, by Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar (disclosure: I've done a bit of research with Steve in the past!). Steve and Shanto used a combination of laboratory-like experiments, and some good observational research in the real world, to show that negative campaigns depress voter participation. They offer a variety of explanations for their results: negative campaigns turn off those who might have supported the candidate being attacked, negative campaigns might just turn all voters off, and that negative campaigns might reduce the general sense of civic duty felt by voters.

It's results like these that lead most observers of political discourse to raise concerns about negativity in our politics—if negativity depresses civic duty, and makes it less likely that people participate, that clearly is something that we'd like to avoid.

But this is not the end of the story, because there is research on the other side of this debate. A good example is a paper by David Niven, "A Field Experiment on the Effects of Negative Campaign Mail on Voter Turnout in a Municipal Election." Niven was able to conduct some innovative field experiments in some actual municipal elections; in these field experiments, Niven manipulated whether randomly selected voters were exposed to negative campaign information or not. He found that those exposed to the negative messages were more likely to turn out to vote in the municipal elections he studied. The argument here is that while the information in the messages was negative, it was also informative—and that voters who get information are more likely to vote, even if that information is negative.

Furthermore, there is behavioral evidence that voters seek out negative information. For example, a study by Michael Meffert and colleagues, "The Effects of Negativity and Motivated Information Processing During a Political Campaign" found that in an experiment designed to simulate a campaign environment, subjects displayed behavior consistent with a "negativity bias." That is, negative campaign information was more likely to be followed than positive information in their experiments.

So where does this leave us? I think there are some important conclusions from these different findings in the research literature.

First, candidates engage in negativity because they believe it will help them win. But there are many different negative strategies that candidates can use: some are harsh, personal and are intended to turn off the opponent's supporters; others are negative, but informative, and these attacks might make it more likely that the attacker's supporters turn out to vote.

Second, negative politics works—but as the evidence discussed earlier reveals, negative politics does not always work predictably. Again, sometimes negative politics will turn people off, but sometimes negative politics engages voters. Thus, negativity doesn't always lead to alienated voters.

Third, voters appear to like negative information. Research has shown that voters will seek out negative political information, and if the demand is there politicians and candidates will supply negativity.

Finally, whether we like it or not, negative politics is here to stay. Negativity works for candidates who are seeking election. Campaigns in the United States have always seen negative attacks; while it may be true that modern technologies extend and amplify negative attacks, the fact is that they are part of our politics.

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