CORDIS - EU research results

Comparative Study Negative Campaigning and its Consequences

Final Report Summary - CSNCC (Comparative Study Negative Campaigning and its Consequences)

Negative campaigning consists of criticizing one’s political opponent in an attempt to ‘win’ voters by diminishing the attractiveness of the opponent (Geer 2006; Lau et al. 2007). The opposite is positive campaigning, which consists of acclamation and self-praise aimed at raising one’s own attractiveness to voters. Although use of each of these forms of political discourse can be traced back for millennia (in any case to ancient Greek times), scholarly investigation is relatively recent, and more explicitly directed to negative campaigning than to its positive counterpart. The reasons for this are practical as well as normative. On the practical side, the increasing professionalization of politics and campaigning have generated an increased demand for evidence-based recommendations about how to wage campaigns in order to ‘win’ elections. On the normative side are apprehensions about undesirable side-effects of negative campaigning for the quality of representative democracy: citizens exposed to negative campaigning are often said to become more cynical about the responsiveness of public officials and about the electoral process, and that they would, as a result, be less likely to take part in elections (Ansolabehere et al. 1994). Yet our knowledge of negative campaigning and its effects is still quite limited.

This study has the following four research objectives:
(1) generate new knowledge about the systemic conditions in which negative campaigning is more or less prevalent, by explicit comparison between multiple countries and multiple sub-national political contexts;
(2) produce new insights into the effects of negative campaigning, in particular on actual electoral behaviour;
(3) contribute to the further conceptualization and theorizing of negative campaigning by identifying it as a specific case of the more general phenomenon of political attack rhetoric; and
(4) contribute to further theorizing by integrating and building upon insights from different disciplinary traditions in the study of negative campaigning and attack rhetoric, such as electoral studies, comparative politics, political theory, communication theory and media effect studies.

The study consists of three parts:
(1) comparison of negative campaigning between countries
(2) comparison of negative campaigning between British constituencies and
(3) attack rhetoric in politics.

The main findings are that in a multiparty context parties who make use of negative campaigning tend not only to become less electorally attractive to voters, but by making use of negative campaigning they can even boost voters’ preferences for a third party (not the attacking or targeted party). When voters’ first preferred party runs a more negative campaign than voters’ second preferred party, the second preferred party becomes more electorally attractive. At the aggregate level we find that making use of negative campaigning diminishes the vote share of the parties that go negative and that most votes are gained by their main electoral competitors. In the context of the 2015 UK General Election we did not find any effect of negative campaigning on voters’ turnout and satisfaction with democracy. We did find that negative campaigning negatively affected voters’ political trust; this effect was especially found among voters without a party identification or a strong national identity. Results also showed heterogeneous effects for parties: when anti-system parties go negative this tends to strengthen political trust. Most results are found on the basis of survey analysis in the 2015 UK General Election context. We are in the process of replicating the studies in experimental settings and in other countries.

Findings in studies on negative campaigning tend to differ depending on how negative campaigning is measured. We established that voters’ perceptions of negative campaigning are to a large extent congruent with those of professional experts (i.e. campaign managers) once corrected for partisan bias; however, they do differ distinctly from measures based on content analyses of newspaper reporting of party campaign behaviour and proclamations. How voters perceive the tone of the campaign is related to the content of the campaign messages that they are exposed to. In particular incivil, integrity and ideology attacks make voters evaluate the tone of a campaign as more negative, while competence attacks do not seem to have an effect. In addition, we find an impact of personality traits on voters’ perceptions of campaign tone. Voters who score low on extraversion and high on conscientiousness and openness to experience tend to evaluate campaign messages as more negative, regardless of their content.

These results question the common notion among practitioners that negative campaigning is an effective strategy to win voters. Existing work already suggests that negative campaigning is not beneficial at the elite level in multiparty systems, as it diminishes the chances of participating in coalition governments and tends to make them more unstable (Walter 2012). Our research adds to this that negative campaigning is not beneficial at mass level either. Our research also shows that US-based insights about negative campaigning cannot be easily extrapolated to non-U.S. settings. Negative campaigning does not seem to hurt electoral participation as often found in the U.S. context, but it does diminish political trust and therefore might affect the quality of representative democracy. How voters perceive the use of negative campaigning is related to not only the type of attacks they are exposed to, but also to their personality traits. Research findings in this field are highly susceptible to the measures used and therefore work should be cross validated if possible.