In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Negative Campaigning

  • Introduction
  • Defining Negativity

Political Science Negative Campaigning
Travis N. Ridout, Samuel C. Rhodes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0228


Negative campaigning is hardly a new phenomenon. It has almost certainly existed for as long as there have been political campaigns. Scholarly interest in negative campaigning rose in the 1990s, stemming, in large part, from concerns about its impact on citizens, such as whether it might mislead voters, dampen their desire to participate in politics or create a generation of cynics. Until about ten years ago, most studies of campaign negativity had relied on data from the United States, perhaps due to the sheer volume of negativity in the United States. But negativity is not just an American phenomenon. Studies of campaign negativity in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere have recently been published, and some studies that compare the strategic use of campaign negativity across national contexts have been produced. Nonetheless, how to measure negativity remains contested. Although many scholars now use a standard definition of negativity—any criticism of an opponent—there is disagreement about whether operationalizing negativity in this way makes sense. For one, there is much variation in the content of messages that criticize opponents. Some focus on personal characteristics, while others focus on policy; some focus on matters relevant to governing, while others do not; some appeal to anger, while others appeal to fear or sadness. Second, there is increasing evidence that citizen perceptions of what is a negative message do not necessarily match up with scholars’ definitions. One positive development in the study of negative campaigning is that scholars have started to move beyond the study of advertising (generally television) and have started to investigate the tone of other campaign messages as well, such as online videos, tweets, emails, and Facebook posts. Still, research comparing tone across campaign channels and platforms is in its infancy.

Defining Negativity

What is campaign negativity? Geer 2006 provides a widely used definition, while Jamieson, et al. 2000 proposes a three-fold classification. Benoit 1999 argues for a focus on the functions of political ads. Ridout and Franz 2008 tackles the operationalization of negativity in research, while Mattes and Redlawsk 2014 and Richardson 2001 critique standard definitions.

  • Benoit, William L. Seeing Spots: A Functional Analysis of Presidential Television Advertisements, 1952–1996. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.

    Eschews the binary classification of political ads as positive or negative and instead focuses on the functions of political messages: attacking, acclaiming, and defending. These are further subdivided into comments on character and policy.

  • Geer, John G. In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226285009.001.0001

    Important book that provides the definition of negativity used by many scholars: “any criticism leveled by one candidate against another during a campaign.” This book also serves as a defense of negativity, pointing out that negative ads are more likely to contain backing for their claims and are more likely to discuss policy issues.

  • Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, Paul Waldman, and Susan Sherr. “Eliminate the Negative? Categories of Analysis for Political Advertisements.” Crowded Airwaves: Campaign Advertising in Elections (2000): 44–64.

    Argues for a three-fold classification of the tone of political advertising: attack, advocacy, and contrast. The chapter suggests that the word negative implies dirty politics, while an attack on a candidate, if it is fair, accurate and relevant to governing, can be useful for citizens.

  • Mattes, Kyle, and David P. Redlawsk. The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

    Significant book that makes a case that negativity can be good for voters. Argues that citizens’ perceptions of what is negative do not match the perceptions of scholars. What really drives citizen perceptions of a message’s negativity is defamation—mentions of a candidate’s family or religion. Also argues that citizens must hear about opponents’ flaws, as they lack the ability to infer these.

  • Richardson, Glenn W. “Looking for Meaning in All the Wrong Places: Why Negative Advertising Is a Suspect Category.” Journal of Communication 51.4 (2001): 775–800.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2001.tb02906.x

    Critique of how negative campaigning is discussed. Suggests “moving beyond negativity as the centerpiece of the discourse on political campaigning” by narrowing in on the pathological elements of ads, returning to a focus on the visual and considering the context of popular culture.

  • Ridout, Travis N., and Michael Franz. “Evaluating Measures of Campaign Tone.” Political Communication 25.2 (2008): 158–179.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600801985409

    More concerned with operationalizing than defining negativity, this manuscript finds positive and fairly high correlations among measure of tone based on ads made, ads aired, newspaper coverage and citizen perceptions.

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