Brian M. Hughes Ph.D.

Homeostasis Disruptor

It's the Negative Campaigning, Stupid

Voters may not like negative campaigns, but they are certainly swayed by them.

Posted Feb 05, 2016

It's certainly a big year for voters. The US Presidential Primaries are dominating the news in America, as well as creating media ripples throughout the world. Given the frenzy the Trump-Cruz and Clinton-Sanders match-ups are causing, it is hard to even imagine the cacophony that will arise when the full Presidential Election takes place in November.

In the UK, the media cycle is on a rolling boil over the forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. This contentious national vote has not been finally scheduled, but is expected to take place in either June or September of 2016.

And in Ireland—where I am—we are just entering a General Election campaign, set to culminate on 26 February with a vote for seats in the national parliament, thereby determining which party or parties form the next national government.  

But that's in an ideal world. What happens in the real world?

It often seems that in the real world, the various protagonists spend most of their time insulting their rivals. The democratic ideal of logically presenting your case to a cogent electorate gives way to a rather more mundane principal of portraying the other guy as nefarious, incompetent, or corrupt. Or maybe a combination of all three.

The US Presidential Primaries have been widely maligned as a parade of interpersonal nastiness, the UK referendum is accused of being awash with scaremongering, and in the Irish case, one political leader denied engaging in negative campaigning even when unveiling a poster depicting his direct opponent as a threat to health and a champion of the rich elite.

Why does this always seem to happen? Surely this type of schoolyard mudslinging risks alienating voters?

Well, recent research suggests a rather prosaic explanation. Voters certainly don't approve of negative campaigning—but they are nonetheless swayed by it.

One large scale survey of the US voting public has shown that a large majority of voters disapprove of negative campaigning, with 86% of those surveyed declaring it to be "unethical". The same study showed that 76% of voters believe negative campaigning produces "less ethical leaders". It seems that voters know negative campaigning when they see it, and are happy to report (to survey-takers at least) that they think it is a bad thing.

However, another newly published study—based on actual voting behavior, rather than opinion poll responses—shows that citizens are clearly influenced by negative campaigning, and reward politicians for using it. 

What makes this particular study intriguing was its experimental design. In short, rather than just asking voters what they think, the researchers convinced actual political candidates to send either positive or negative campaign letters to their prospective voters. By systematically varying the distribution of letters across electoral districts, they were then able to study district-level voting patterns to check if the content of the letters resulted in different voter responses. And true enough, in districts targeted with negative campaign letters, voters were more likely to turn out to vote for the candidate who issued them.

The context for the study was US local elections. The researchers were careful to include both Democratic and Republican candidates, and to take account of past voting behavior by referring to parties' registered voter mailing lists (in other words, they avoided trying to change voters' party allegiances, and instead focused on maximizing base voter turnout).

So in short, when a politician you like engages in negative campaigning, you are more likely to vote for that politician. And this is why they do it. They are more likely to win.

Commenting on the way democracy converts public sentiment into elected representation, French philosopher Joseph de Maistre once remarked that "Every nation gets the government it deserves."

He was no doubt referring to sentiment as gauged by actual elections rather than by opinion polls.  

Reference: Barton, J., Castillo, M., & Petrie, R. (2016). Negative campaigning, fundraising, and voter turnout: A field experiment. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 121, 99-113.