Political Science Negative Campaigning
Travis N. Ridout, Samuel C. Rhodes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 May 2019
  • 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.

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    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.

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

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226285009.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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

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    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.

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  • 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.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600801985409Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    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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Use of Negativity

One of the earliest tasks of researchers who studied negative campaigning was to describe when and how attacks are deployed in campaigns.

Overviews and Descriptions of Negativity

Johnson-Cartee and Copeland 1991 provides one of the few book-length treatments of negative political advertising, while Lau and Rovner 2009 provides a review of the scholarly literature on the topic. Geer 2012 attributes the rise in campaign negativity to the news media. Mann 2011 provides an in-depth treatment of arguably the most famous negative ad of all time, while Mark 2009 takes a broader historical overview. Hansen and Pedersen 2008 help bring the study of the topic to Europe, and the edited volume Nai and Walter 2015 provides a variety of perspectives on how negativity is used in campaigns and what its effects are.

  • Geer, John G. “The News Media and the Rise of Negativity in Presidential Campaigns.” PS: Political Science & Politics 45.03 (2012): 422–427.

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    Makes a convincing case that the media are at least partly responsible for the rise in negativity over the past few decades because their penchant for covering negativity leads candidates to give them what they want.

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  • Goldstein, Ken, and Paul Freedman. “Lessons Learned: Campaign Advertising in the 2000 Elections.” Political Communication 19.1 (2002): 5–28.

    DOI: 10.1080/105846002317246461Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Introduces a new source of ad tracking data from 2000 that includes the time, cost, length, station, and program on which each individual spot was broadcast. Describes how advertising was used in the presidential campaign and discusses the circumstances under which negative ads are generally used.

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  • Hansen, Kasper M., and Rasmus Tue Pedersen. “Negative Campaigning in a Multiparty System.” Scandinavian Political Studies 31.4 (2008): 408–427.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9477.2008.00213.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Describes levels of negativity in Danish campaigns, one of the first studies of Scandinavia. Reveals relatively low levels of negativity but intense media coverage.

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  • Johnson-Cartee, Karen S., and Gary A. Copeland. Negative Political Advertising: Coming of Age. Hillsdate, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.

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    Book-length overview of negative political advertising. Draws on research from several fields, both academic and professional. Provides history of negativity in campaigns, advice for campaigns in its use, and discussion of its impact on democracy.

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  • Lau, Richard R., and Ivy Brown Rovner. “Negative Campaigning.” Annual Review of Political Science 12 (2009): 285–306.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.10.071905.101448Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Excellent overview of the scholarly literature on negative campaigning, focusing on both when it is used and its effects. Pays special attention to the methodological problems associated with studying media effects and suggests a way forward.

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  • Mann, Robert. Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad that Changed American Politics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011.

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    Fascinating account of the circumstances surrounding the airing of one of the most famous negative ads in American history: the “Daisy Girl” ad that aired during the 1964 presidential campaign.

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  • Mark, David. Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

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    Provides a general history, along with several prominent case studies, of negative campaigning in the United States. Noteworthy races are highlighted to illustrate how negative campaigning strategies were first introduced, as well as how current practices were refined and augmented.

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  • Nai, Alessandro, and Annemarie S. Walter, eds. New Perspectives on Negative Campaigning: Why Attack Politics Matters. Colchester, UK: ECPR, 2015.

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    Authors argue that while negative campaigning is a global phenomenon, most existing literature is situated within the American context. This edited collection examines the similarities and differences of how negativity is used in campaigning in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Several contributors also examine ad effects.

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Trends in Negativity

Kaid and Johnston 1991; Geer 2006; and Fowler, et al. 2016 are all useful in documenting trends in the use of negativity in US campaigns over time.

Attack Strategy

Examinations of the strategic use of negativity is one large subset of research on negative campaigning. Skaperdas and Grofman 1995 provides a theoretical grounding for much of this work with the authors’ formal model that highlights candidate positioning. Haynes and Rhine 1998 and Peterson and Djupe 2005 focus on explaining negativity in multi-candidate primary races in the United States. The role of timing is examined in Damore 2002, while Hale, et al. 1996 highlights the role of competitiveness as a predictor of negativity. The factors that influence negativity online, Druckman, et al. 2010 argues, are similar to those that influence negativity on television. Many of the factors leading to negative campaigning are similar in Europe and the United States, as Elmelund-Præstekær 2010 shows, but European research also highlights the importance of examining the party system, as does Ridout and Walter 2015. A party’s potential to join a coalition is considered by Walter and Van der Brug 2013.

  • Damore, David F. “Candidate Strategy and the Decision to Go Negative.” Political Research Quarterly 55.3 (2002): 669–685.

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    Focuses on the use of attack ads in US presidential races from 1976 to 1996. The article finds that candidates who are trailing are more likely to attack. Attacks are also more frequent closer to Election Day and on salient issues.

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  • Druckman, James N., Martin J. Kifer, and Michael Parkin. “Timeless Strategy Meets New Medium: Going Negative on Congressional Campaign Web Sites, 2002–2006.” Political Communication 27.1 (2010): 88–103.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600903502607Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Demonstrates that the determinants of negativity on congressional campaign websites are similar to those that influence negativity in political advertising.

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  • Elmelund-Præstekær, Christian. “Beyond American Negativity: Toward a General Understanding of the Determinants of Negative Campaigning.” European Political Science Review 2.1 (2010): 137–156.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1755773909990269Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An examination of Danish campaigns that highlights the role of the party system. Incumbent parties are less negative, but the prospect of electoral failure doesn’t matter like it does in the United States.

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  • Hale, Jon F., Jeffrey C. Fox, and Rick Farmer. “Negative Advertisements in US Senate Campaigns: The Influence of Campaign Context.” Social Science Quarterly (1996): 329–343.

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    Finds more negativity in more competitive races, among challengers and in races in more populous states.

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  • Haynes, Audrey A., and Staci L. Rhine. “Attack Politics in Presidential Nomination Campaigns: An Examination of the Frequency and Determinants of Intermediated Negative Messages against Opponents.” Political Research Quarterly 51.3 (1998): 691–721.

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    Examines attacks during the 1992 Democratic presidential primary campaign, placing special emphasis on the characteristics of those candidates who were attacked, including their ideological positioning and their competitive standing.

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  • Peterson, David A. M., and Paul A. Djupe. “When Primary Campaigns Go Negative: The Determinants of Campaign Negativity.” Political Research Quarterly 58.1 (2005): 45–54.

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    An examination of the predictors of negativity in US Senate primary races, focusing on the number of days to election, whether there is an incumbent, and the number of challengers in the race.

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  • Ridout, Travis N., and Annemarie S. Walter. “Party System Change and Negative Campaigning in New Zealand.” Party Politics 21.6 (2015): 982–992.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354068813509522Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Points to the role of the electoral and party system in explaining the tone of campaigns. Finds that New Zealand’s switch in the 1990s from a strong two-party system to a system that included more parties coincided with a decline in levels of campaign negativity.

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  • Skaperdas, Stergios, and Bernard Grofman. “Modeling Negative Campaigning.” American Political Science Review 89.01 (1995): 49–61.

    DOI: 10.2307/2083074Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Presents a formal model of “going negative” in which the propensity to attack depends on the number of candidates in the race and whether the candidate is a front-runner or trailing.

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  • Walter, Annemarie S., and Wouter Van der Brug. “When the Gloves Come Off: Inter-party Variation in Negative Campaigning in Dutch Elections, 1981–2010.” Acta Politica 48.4 (2013): 367–388.

    DOI: 10.1057/ap.2013.5Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues based on data from the Netherlands that a party’s potential to become part of a governing coalition post-election is a key factor driving decisions to attack during a campaign.

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Effects of Negativity on Citizens

While one broad area of research focuses on the situations under which campaigns deploy negativity, another focuses on the consequences of the use of negativity on citizens.

Citizen Attitudes

One big question driving research on campaign negativity is whether it has ill effects on people’s attitudes toward the democratic system. Dermody and Scullion 2003 lay out this case. But Jackson, et al. 2009 finds no democratically displeasing effects. Pinkleton, et al. 2002 agrees, with one exception. Krupnikov 2012 argues that negativity helps people decide for whom they will vote. Schenck-Hamlin, et al. 2000 is less sanguine, pointing out the importance of how ads are framed. Brooks and Geer 2007 argues that incivility is key to understanding the effects of negativity.

  • Brooks, Deborah Jordan, and John G. Geer. “Beyond Negativity: The Effects of Incivility on the Electorate.” American Journal of Political Science 51.1 (2007): 1–16.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2007.00233.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Conducts an experiment to examine the impacts of both campaign negativity and incivility on several attitudinal and behavioral outcomes, including people’s perceptions that a campaign is fair. The authors conclude that negativity is less a problem for citizens than is incivility, especially incivility that is directed at candidate traits.

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  • Dermody, Janine, and Richard Scullion. “Exploring the Consequences of Negative Political Advertising for Liberal Democracy.” Journal of Political Marketing 2.1 (2003): 77–100.

    DOI: 10.1300/J199v02n01_04Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Makes a normative argument that campaigners must look past the potential short-term gains of using negative advertising to consider potential long-term negative impacts of its use on the electorate.

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  • Jackson, Robert A., Jeffery J. Mondak, and Robert Huckfeldt. “Examining the Possible Corrosive Impact of Negative Advertising on Citizens’ Attitudes toward Politics.” Political Research Quarterly 62.1 (2009): 55–69.

    DOI: 10.1177/1065912908317031Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the oft-heard complaint that negative advertising is corrosive to attitudes about American democracy. Finds little support for this claim, as exposure to ads is unrelated to approval of Congress, perceptions of congressional approval, approval of congressional leaders, or internal efficacy.

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  • Krupnikov, Yanna. “Negative Advertising and Voter Choice: The Role of Ads in Candidate Selection.” Political Communication 29 (2012): 387–413.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2012.721868Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Shows that negative political advertising can increase the likelihood that an individual will choose a candidate to vote for. Suggests that selecting a candidate is desirable as voters are then more likely to donate or volunteer for a candidate.

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  • Pinkleton, Bruce E., Nam-Hyun Um, and Erica Weintraub Austin. “An Exploration of the Effects of Negative Political Advertising on Political Decision Making.” Journal of Advertising 31.1 (2002): 13–25.

    DOI: 10.1080/00913367.2002.10673657Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Another piece that assesses the notion that negative advertising has corrosive effects on attitudes toward the democratic system. Although the authors find that exposure to negativity made people more negative toward political campaigns, it had no impact on people’s reported efficacy, cynicism, or apathy.

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  • Schenck-Hamlin, William J., David E. Procter, and Deborah J. Rumsey. “The Influence of Negative Advertising Frames on Political Cynicism and Politician Accountability.” Human Communication Research 26.1 (2000): 53–74.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.2000.tb00749.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Explores how the framing of negative ads, whether candidate-focused or issue-focused, influences people’s cynicism toward the political system and whom they blame for problems. Suggests that negative ads can have a broader impact on people’s views of politicians generally and the political system.

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Citizen Learning and Perceptions

Whether people learn from negative messages is another topic of study. Mayer 1996 makes a forceful case for the utility of negativity to voters. Newhagen and Reeves 1991 discusses how negativity facilitates recognition of a message. Stevens 2005 says negativity can be helpful for learning—but only among those who already know a lot. Geer and Geer 2003 finds no benefits of negativity for learning. Cheng and Riffe 2008 examines the origins of perceptions of negativity, pointing to the importance of attention to the news. Sides, et al. 2010 shows that perceptions of negativity do not correspond with perceptions that a message is informative. Fridkin, et al. 2015 and O’Sullivan and Geiger 1995 find that fact checks can make people turn against negative ads. However, Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1996 find that fact checks are counterproductive.

  • Ansolabehere, Stephen, and Shanto Iyengar. “Can the Press Monitor Campaign Advertising? An Experimental Study.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 1.1 (1996): 72–86.

    DOI: 10.1177/1081180X96001001006Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Participants in this experiment were not exposed to the attack in question, but rather a local news story about the accuracy of the spot. Despite being labeled as inaccurate by a reporter, there was increased support for the candidate sponsoring the ad, suggesting that the power of the message can override fact-checking.

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  • Cheng, Hong, and Daniel Riffe. “Attention, Perception, and Perceived Effects: Negative Political Advertising in a Battleground State of the 2004 Presidential Election.” Mass Communication & Society 11.2 (2008): 177–196.

    DOI: 10.1080/15205430701592859Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Finds that perceptions of campaign negativity depend on both how much attention the individual is paying to the campaign and the extent to which people view the news, with more exposure leading to perceptions of greater negativity. Evidence of a third-person effect is also presented.

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  • Fridkin, Kim, Patrick J. Kenney, and Amanda Wintersieck. “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire: How Fact-Checking Influences Citizens’ Reactions to Negative Advertising.” Political Communication 32.1 (2015): 127–151.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2014.914613Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that “fact checks” on the content of negative advertising can be effective. Shows that people exposed to a fact check claiming an ad is inaccurate rate the ad as less accurate, less useful, and more hostile—and they are less likely to accept claims made about an attacked candidate.

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  • Geer, John G., and James H. Geer. “Remembering Attack Ads: An Experimental Investigation of Radio.” Political Behavior 25.1 (2003): 69–95.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1022904428357Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Departs from most studies in finding that recall is no better for negative ads than for positive ads. Also finds that people’s recall of information contained in a negative ad is less accurate than their recall of information contained in a positive ad.

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  • Mayer, William G. “In Defense of Negative Campaigning.” Political Science Quarterly 111.3 (1996): 437–455.

    DOI: 10.2307/2151970Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues against the notion that negative advertisements are damaging to the American political process. Rather, suggests that negative campaigning can be useful to voters by clarifying what the candidates stand for and by exposing their untruths. Also considers possible objections to these arguments.

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  • Newhagen, John E., and Byron Reeves. “Emotion and Memory Responses for Negative Political Advertising: A Study of Television Commercials Used in the 1988 Presidential Election.” Television and Political Advertising 1 (1991): 197–220.

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    Via an experiment, finds that recognition of information from a message is faster and more accurate when the message is negative as opposed to positive.

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  • O’Sullivan, Patrick B., and Seth Geiger. “Does the Watchdog Bite? Newspaper Ad Watch Articles and Political Attack Ads.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 72.4 (1995): 771–785.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769909507200402Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Using an experiment, finds that the candidate targeted in an attack ad was less likely to be harmed when the spot was considered inaccurate by fact-checkers.

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  • Sides, John, Keena Lipsitz, and Matthew Grossmann. “Do Voters Perceive Negative Campaigns as Informative Campaigns?” American Politics Research 38.3 (2010): 502–530.

    DOI: 10.1177/1532673X09336832Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that how negative people judge a campaign to be and how useful they judge a campaign to be are largely unrelated to each other. Suggests that while citizens do not necessarily appreciate the informational value of negative campaigns that is touted by some scholars, citizens can find value in negative campaigns.

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  • Stevens, Daniel. “Separate and Unequal Effects: Information, Political Sophistication and Negative Advertising in American Elections.” Political Research Quarterly 58.3 (2005): 413–425.

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    Argues that the extent to which negative advertising can provoke learning among citizens varies depending on how politically sophisticated they are. Greater exposure to negativity results in more learning about the candidates among those who are high in political sophistication but has no impact—or even a detrimental impact—on learning among those low in political sophistication.

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Candidate Favorability and Vote Choice

Does negative campaigning influence support for candidates? While the most definitive answer to this question is provided by Lau, et al. 2007, a meta-analysis that finds no relationship between campaign tone and vote choice, scholars have continued to investigate the situations under which negativity can influence candidate support.

  • Lau, Richard R., Lee Sigelman, and Ivy Brown Rovner. “The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment.” Journal of Politics 69 (November 2007): 1176–1209.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00618.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Is a follow up to a similar 1999 article. Reports findings of a meta-analysis of studies examining impact of campaign tone on vote choices. Finds no relationship between negative advertising and vote choice, even though negativity is more memorable.

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Role of Sponsorship

One strand of research focuses on the role of sponsorship in moderating the effectiveness of negativity. Garramone 1985, Kaid and Boydston 1987, and Dowling and Wichowsky 2015 focus on attack messages sponsored by independent groups, while Budesheim, et al. 1996 focuses on the partisanship of the sponsor. Lau and Pomper 2002 examines the role of incumbency.

  • Budesheim, Thomas Lee, David A. Houston, and Stephen J. DePaola. “Persuasiveness of In-Group and Out-Group Political Messages: The Case of Negative Political Campaigning.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70.3 (1996): 523.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.70.3.523Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the influence of in-group and out-group attack advertisements using experiments. Finds that the content of the negative spot influenced evaluations of the in-group candidate but not the out-group candidate.

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  • Dowling, Conor M., and Amber Wichowsky. “Attacks without Consequence? Candidates, Parties, Groups, and the Changing Face of Negative Advertising.” American Journal of Political Science 59 (January 2015): 19–36.

    DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12094Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines role of ad sponsorship on effectiveness of negative advertising. Experimental findings indicate that attack ads are more persuasive when sponsored by an interest group or political party as opposed to a candidate.

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  • Garramone, Gina M. “Effects of Negative Political Advertising: The Roles of Sponsor and Rebuttal.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 29.2 (1985): 147–159.

    DOI: 10.1080/08838158509386573Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Shows experimentally that ads sponsored by independent groups are more effective than ads sponsored by candidates. Also finds that negative ads influenced both perceptions of the candidate as well as vote intentions.

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  • Kaid, Lynda Lee, and John Boydston. “An Experimental Study of the Effectiveness of Negative Political Advertisements.” Communication Quarterly 35.2 (1987): 193–201.

    DOI: 10.1080/01463378709369680Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Finds experimentally that negative newspaper and television spots created by an “independent” sponsor depress evaluations of the target. However, evaluations of the party benefiting from independent attacks were also negatively affected.

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  • Lau, Richard R., and Gerald M. Pomper. “Effectiveness of Negative Campaigning in U.S. Senate Elections.” American Journal of Political Science 46 (January 2002): 47–66.

    DOI: 10.2307/3088414Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Using data from the American National Election Studies, finds that negative campaigning is relatively effective for challengers, but success largely depends on the opponent’s strategy. Also, incumbents’ electoral chances are higher when they employ positive media campaigns.

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Role of Message Content

Fridkin and Kenney 2004 examines the role of message relevance and “mudslinging.” Craig, et al. 2014 examines the effectiveness of various responses to attacks.

  • Craig, Stephen C., Paulina S. Rippere, and Marissa Silber Grayson. “Attack and Response in Political Campaigns: An Experimental Study in Two Parts.” Political Communication 31.4 (2014): 647–674.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2013.879362Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the different ways in which campaigns might respond to an attack. Finds that several ways of responding to an attack can be effective, but accusing the attacker of “mudslinging” is not. Counterattacks also carry the risk of a voter backlash.

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  • Fridkin, Kim Leslie, and Patrick J. Kenney. “Do Negative Messages Work? The Impact of Negativity on Citizens’ Evaluations of Candidates.” American Politics Research 32.5 (2004): 570–605.

    DOI: 10.1177/1532673X03260834Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Finds that negative messages that are delivered in a typical manner and focus on relevant topics reduce evaluations of the targeted opponent. However, negative advertisements that are delivered in a forceful manner and contain extraneous information depress evaluations of both candidates. Also, incumbents are harmed more than challengers when choosing to go negative.

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Backlash Effects

One hypothesized effect of negative campaigning is a boomerang, backlash, or blowback effect whereby voters turn against the attacker. Garramone 1984 popularized this idea, and Haddock and Zanna 1997 provides additional experimental evidence for it. Jasperson and Fan 2002 finds evidence of a backlash in a real-world US Senate campaign.

  • Garramone, Gina M. “Voter Responses to Negative Political Ads.” Journalism Quarterly 61.2 (1984): 250–259.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769908406100202Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Discovers a boomerang or blowback effect with the use of attack advertising. Also finds that responses to negative campaign ads vary with the ad content; ads with several different themes were perceived to be less truthful (and less impactful) than ones with a single theme.

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  • Haddock, Geoffrey, and Mark P. Zanna. “Impact of Negative Advertising on Evaluations of Political Candidates: The 1993 Canadian Federal Election.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 19.2 (1997): 205–223.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15324834basp1902_4Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Provides evidence of a voter backlash by examining the impact of a negative ad aired during the 1993 Canadian federal election. Evaluations of Jean Chrétien, whose facial paralysis was highlighted in the spot, became more positive after exposure, where evaluations of Conservative leader Kim Campbell became more negative.

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  • Jasperson, Amy E., and David P. Fan. “An Aggregate Examination of the Backlash Effect in Political Advertising: The Case of the 1996 US Senate Race in Minnesota.” Journal of Advertising 31.1 (2002): 1–12.

    DOI: 10.1080/00913367.2002.10673656Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    While most evidence of a voter backlash stems from the experimental lab, this study finds evidence of a boomerang or voter backlash in a real-world Senate campaign.

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Gender and Negativity Effects

Research examining how gender interacts with campaign negativity is limited, though there is some good research on the topic. For instance, Gordon, et al. 2003 focuses on the gendered associations of issues used in attacks, and Krupnikov and Bauer 2014 focuses on the gender of the attacking candidate.

  • Gordon, Ann, David M. Shafie, and Ann N. Crigler. “Is Negative Advertising Effective for Female Candidates? An Experiment in Voters’ Uses of Gender Stereotypes.” Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 8.3 (2003): 35–53.

    DOI: 10.1177/1081180X03008003003Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Using an experiment, shows that female candidates are viewed as weaker on “male” issues. However, when female candidates attack male opponents on “male” issues, they are judged to be more competent. Suggests that women candidates can use negativity as effectively as men.

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  • Krupnikov, Yanna, and Nichole M. Bauer. “The Relationship between Campaign Negativity, Gender and Campaign Context.” Political Behavior 36.1 (2014): 167–188.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11109-013-9221-9Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Suggests that candidate gender conditions whether launching an attack will result in a voter backlash. Female candidates experience a backlash but only when they are perceived as first launching an attack and among supporters of the other party.

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Political Participation

Research on the impact of campaign tone on citizen participation, usually measured as voter turnout, is its own cottage industry. Early scholarship in this area was focused on claims of demobilization, but later work has found little support for this idea. It is useful to think of these studies as falling into four camps: the demobilizing camp, the no effects camp, the mobilization camp, and the “it depends” camp.

Demobilization Camp

Ansolabehere, et al. 1994 and Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995 generated enormous interest with the finding that negative ads reduce voter turnout. Responding to the many criticisms of this initial research, Ansolabehere, et al. 1999 revisited the original data and conducted new experiments that confirmed their earlier findings. Lemert, et al. 1999 also finds support for the demobilization thesis.

  • Ansolabehere, Stephen, and Shanto Iyengar. Going Negative. How Political Advertisements Shrink & Polarize the Electorate. New York: Free Press, 1995.

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    This highly cited book relies on a series of experiments in which participants watched ads embedded in television programs. The most important finding was that exposure to negative advertising demobilizes; intended voter turnout was reduced. Also finds that negative ads strengthen support among loyal partisans and helps them learn about the campaign.

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  • Ansolabehere, Stephen D., Shanto Iyengar, and Adam Simon. “Replicating Experiments Using Aggregate and Survey Data: The Case of Negative Advertising and Turnout.” American Political Science Review 93.04 (1999): 901–909.

    DOI: 10.2307/2586120Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A response to critics of their earlier work. Authors use experiments, surveys, and aggregate polling data from the 1992 US Senate elections and again show that negativity is associated with lower turnout.

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  • Ansolabehere, Stephen, Shanto Iyengar, Adam Simon, and Nicholas Valentino. “Does Attack Advertising Demobilize the Electorate?” American Political Science Review 88 (December 1994): 829–838.

    DOI: 10.2307/2082710Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Using aggregate voter turnout in the 1992 US Senate elections, coupled with a series of experiments, finds that negative advertising reduced voter turnout by as much as five percentage points. Negativity also associated with increased voter cynicism.

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  • Lemert, James B., Wayne Wanta, and T. ‐T. Lee. “Party Identification and Negative Advertising in a U.S. Senate Election.” Journal of Communication 49.2 (1999): 123–134.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1999.tb02797.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Analyzes a vote-by-mail special election, finding support for the demobilizing effect of negativity.

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No Demobilization Camp

Wattenberg and Brians 1999, Finkel and Geer 1998, and Brooks 2006 all re-examine the data of Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995 (cited under Demobilization Camp) and draw a different conclusion, namely, that negativity does not demobilize. The meta-analysis of Lau, et al. 1999 also concludes that negativity has no demobilizing effect. Studies by Garramone, et al. 1990; Arceneaux and Nickerson 2010; and Lau and Pomper 2004 further back this claim.

Mobilization Camp

Negativity may even increase voter turnout, perhaps by increasing people’s store of knowledge or by raising the stakes. Studies backing the mobilization hypothesis include Freedman and Goldstein 1999, Martin 2004, Hall and Bonneau 2013, and Jackson and Carsey 2007. Brooks 2010 demonstrates that negativity can mobilize but only among men.

  • Brooks, Deborah Jordan. “A Negativity Gap? Voter Gender, Attack Politics, and Participation in American Elections.” Politics & Gender 6.3 (2010): 319–341.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1743923X10000218Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Finds that while campaign negativity can mobilize, these effects are found almost exclusively among men and not among women.

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  • Freedman, Paul, and Ken Goldstein. “Measuring Media Exposure and the Effects of Negative Campaign Ads.” American Journal of Political Science 43 (October 1999): 1189–1208.

    DOI: 10.2307/2991823Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Contributes to the debate over tone and turnout by developing a better measure of campaign exposure. Combining respondent viewing behavior with the tone of ads that aired in the respondent’s media market, the authors find the exposure to negative advertising boosts turnout.

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  • Hall, Melinda Gann, and Chris W. Bonneau. “Attack Advertising, the White Decision, and Voter Participation in State Supreme Court Elections.” Political Research Quarterly 66.1 (2013): 115–126.

    DOI: 10.1177/1065912911433296Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    One of few studies on tone in judicial elections. Authors probe whether the 2002 Republican Party of Minnesota v. White decision, which allowed for an expansion of negative ads and deregulated campaign speech codes in state supreme court elections, influenced citizen participation. Results indicate that these changes enhance, rather than depress, voter mobilization.

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  • Jackson, Robert A., and Thomas M. Carsey. “US Senate Campaigns, Negative Advertising, and Voter Mobilization in the 1998 Midterm Election.” Electoral Studies 26.1 (2007): 180–195.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.electstud.2006.06.010Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In an analysis of the 1998 US Senate elections, authors find that negative ads can boost voter turnout. Shows that turnout is positively related to the number of negative ads aired during the campaign.

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  • Martin, Paul S. “Inside the Black Box of Negative Campaign Effects: Three Reasons Why Negative Campaigns Mobilize.” Political Psychology 25 (August 2004): 545–562.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2004.00386.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that the mixed findings on whether negative advertising depresses turnout are due to a failure to understand the psychological mechanisms at work in the minds of viewers. Identifies three mechanisms of voter motivation: problem awareness, candidate threat, and the perceived closeness of the election. Finds that each is positively related to exposure to negative advertising.

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It Depends Camp

Little recent research has adopted a universal “negativity demobilizes” argument, but several studies have suggested that negativity can demobilize under certain conditions. For instance, Kahn and Kenney 1999 suggests that “mudslinging” attacks can demobilize, while Krupnikov suggests that the timing of a negative message influences whether it demobilizes or not. Along these same lines, Min 2004 focuses on the demobilizing potential of personal attacks.

  • Kahn, Kim Fridkin, and Patrick J. Kenney. “Do Negative Campaigns Mobilize or Suppress Turnout? Clarifying the Relationship between Negativity and Participation.” American Political Science Review 93 (December 1999): 877–889.

    DOI: 10.2307/2586118Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Makes a distinction between negative advertising, which the authors define as legitimate criticism, compared to mudslinging, that is, irrelevant and harsh attacks. Find that as the proportion of these legitimate criticisms increases, citizens become more likely to vote. However, mudslinging tends to repel voters from the polls, though this tendency depends on individual characteristics.

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  • Krupnikov, Yanna. “When Does Negativity Demobilize? Tracing the Conditional Effect of Negative Campaigning on Voter Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 55 (October 2011): 797–813.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2011.00522.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that conflicting research on whether or not negative advertising demobilizes voters omits the key variable of time—specifically, exactly when a participant is exposed to negativity. Using several decades worth of television ad data, Krupnikov’s unique methodology finds that negative spots demobilize when two conditions are met: (1) a person is exposed to a negative spot after selecting a preferred candidate and (2) the negativity is directed toward the preferred candidate.

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  • Min, Young. “News Coverage of Negative Political Campaigns: An Experiment of Negative Campaign Effects on Turnout and Candidate Preference.” Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 9.4 (2004): 95–111.

    DOI: 10.1177/1081180X04271861Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In an examination of the effects of negativity on turnout, results indicate that there may not be a uniform response to attack ads. Negative spots in which public policy are the focus stimulate turnout, while those in which the opponent is personally attacked significantly lower the intent to vote.

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Participation Beyond Turnout

While most research focuses on the impact of negativity on voter turnout, a few studies have analyzed other outcomes. Franz, et al. 2009 focuses on other forms of participation such as engaging in political conversations and contacting public officials, while Niebler and Urban 2017 focuses on how negativity influences campaign contributions.

  • Franz, Michael M., Paul B. Freedman, Kenneth M. Goldstein, and Travis N. Ridout. Campaign Advertising and American Democracy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.

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    Chapter 9 examines the effects of negative advertisements on various types of participation. Authors found no evidence that negativity depresses citizens’ willingness to attend political rallies, display campaign stickers, sign a petition or engage in political conversation with friends or family.

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  • Niebler, Sarah, and Carly Urban. “Does Negative Advertising Affect Giving Behavior? Evidence from Campaign Contributions.” Journal of Public Economics 146 (2017): 15–26.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2016.12.001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Shows that increased campaign negativity in primary races results in less giving by campaign contributors in the general election.

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Psychological Effects of Negativity

While most research is focused on impacts of negative campaigning that are more immediately relevant to campaigners, some studies have investigated how people respond psychologically to exposure to negativity in campaigns. Bradley, et al. 2007 examines learning and attention effects of exposure to negative ads. Lariscy, et al. 1999 identifies a “sleeper” effect after exposure to negative advertising, while Meirick 2002 examines the incidence of counterarguing. Cohen and Davis 1991 finds a third-person effect with exposure to negative advertising.

  • Bradley, Samuel D., James R. Angelini, and Sungkyoung Lee. “Psychophysiological and Memory Effects of Negative Political Ads: Aversive, Arousing, and Well Remembered.” Journal of Advertising 36.4 (2007): 115–127.

    DOI: 10.2753/JOA0091-3367360409Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that exposure to negative ad leads to psychological arousal, as measured through the eyeblink startle reflex and self-reports. In addition, negative ads were better remembered.

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  • Cohen, Jeremy, and Robert G. Davis. “Third-Person Effects and the Differential Impact in Negative Political Advertising.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 68.4 (1991): 680–688.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769909106800409Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Finds evidence for a third-person effect—the belief that others are more influenced by negative advertising than oneself is—but suggests that the relationship is contingent on whether the attacked candidate is liked or disliked. When the attacked candidate is disliked, people report they themselves are more influenced by a negative ad than are others.

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  • Lariscy, Ruth, Ann Weaver, and Spencer F. Tinkham. “The Sleeper Effect and Negative Political Advertising.” Journal of Advertising 28.4 (1999): 13–30.

    DOI: 10.1080/00913367.1999.10673593Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Probes the possibility of a sleeper effect with negative political advertising. Namely, when people are exposed to attack ads and an ad that defends the attacked candidate, the defensive ad is initially quite effective, but over time, the impact of the defensive ad wears off, making the attack more effective.

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  • Meirick, Patrick. “Cognitive Responses to Negative and Comparative Political Advertising.” Journal of Advertising 31.1 (2002): 49–62.

    DOI: 10.1080/00913367.2002.10673660Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines differences in how people respond to comparative ads and purely negative ads. Somewhat surprisingly, finds that comparative ads result in more counterarguing than negative ads, but negative ads did trigger more source derogations than did comparative ads.

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