Negative campaigning is a widespread technique, using the method of comparison and attack. It does not focus on one’s own strengths, but rather on the alleged weaknesses of one’s political opponent. The attacks can be directed at the platform of the political opponent or at his or her personality. Whenever the attacks aim at personal integrity, address aspects of someone’s private life, and “go below the belt,” it is also called “playing dirty” or “mudslinging.”
Negative campaigning is a common practice in US election campaigns. It is most frequently applied in close races: the tighter the contest, the meaner the campaign (Ansolabehere & Iyengar 1995). But in other western democracies the tactic has been used as well (Kaid & Holtz-Bacha 1995). Negative campaigning is generally more accepted in countries with a competitive culture and less so in countries with a consensus-based political culture.
Negative campaigning rests on the conclusion that voters perceive negative messages less selectively than positive messages. It is therefore easier to demobilize the supporters of one’s political opponent with the help of negative messages than to convince them of one’s own merits through positive messages. Negative messages are more likely to be perceived and remembered than positive messages.
Campaign managers choose the type of messages they intend to send according to an analysis of strengths and weaknesses of their own candidate and their opponent. When candidates’ own positions on a variety of issues are largely in sync with the majority of public opinion, putting them on the road of victory, they will mainly run their campaign on positive messages about themselves. They will avoid negative campaigning, since attacks on their opponents would only create publicity for them. Candidates are more likely to resort to negative campaigning when they are relatively unknown, trailing behind in the polls, or their platform positions are contested. It allows them to increase their profile, divert attention from unfavorable issues, and try to put their political opponents under pressure. More often than not, challengers employ negative campaigning against incumbents. Candidates also use it when they have much less access to campaigning resources than their opponents, trying to reach the mass media’s attention with the help of negative campaigning.
For attacks on the political opponent, the method of choice is television ads. The ads blame the rival for being dishonest, untrustworthy, inexperienced, or lacking in leadership qualities. In the case of incumbents, campaigners often use political or personal records as “proof ” for such accusations. Negative campaigning is a tightrope walk. On the one hand, the tactic creates public attention; on the other hand, the attacks can turn into a boomerang. Such a backlash is likely whenever the candidate’s personality is under assault. In order to reduce this risk, the candidates do not execute the attacks themselves. Instead, they leave this job to seemingly independent or third-party groups that are in fact close to them. Campaign professionals also try to leak information to the media that discredits the political opponent, without revealing the source of that information.
Negative campaigning corresponds to the attention logic of the mass media. It focuses on conflict and argument, on candidates’ personal characteristics, and it provides a competition story. All of this relates to journalists’ news selection criteria, especially to negativism. The fight itself often becomes the story (Ansolabehere & Iyengar 1995).
Negative campaigning and the journalistic coverage of the attacks have led to fierce criticism. According to critics, the mudslinging sheds a bad light on politicians and the political system as a whole. Negative campaigning and its enhancement through media coverage may lead to voter alienation and political cynicism. According to some studies, negative campaigning manages to mobilize the loyal supporters of a party, but it keeps the undecided from voting (Ansolabehere et al. 1994). But these results are contested (Lau et al. 1999; Kaid 2004). Other studies show that negative campaigning has the potential of increasing interest in a campaign. Fierce fighting between political opponents is a signal to the voters that the stakes at the elections are high. According to the proponents of negative campaigning, it can put important topics onto the political agenda, thereby offering some orientation to the voters through direct comparison. “If negative commercials persuade voters that the choice between the candidates is an important one, then they are likely to increase rather than decrease turnout” (Wattenberg & Brians 1999, 896).
Yet the accusation that journalists acquiesced to being used, thereby contributing to increasing political cynicism, has led to some rethinking. So-called ad watches have become relatively common in recent US campaigns. In them, journalists critically scrutinize and analyze the messages transmitted by the TV ads. But this practice has been criticized, too: taking up and repeating the negative ads over and over again only reinforce their messages, critics say. Thus the negative TV ad rather than its analysis gets planted in the recipients’ conscience.
- Ansolabehere, S., & Iyengar, S. (1995). Going negative: How political advertisements shrink and polarize the electorate. New York: Free Press.
- Ansolabehere, S., Iyengar, S., Simon, A., & Valentino, N. (1994). Does attack advertising demobilize the electorate? American Political Science Review, 88, 829 – 838.
- Kaid, L. L. (2004). Political advertising. In L. L. Kaid (ed.), Handbook of political communication research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 155 –202.
- Kaid, L. L., & Holtz-Bacha, C. (eds.) (1995). Political advertising in western democracies: Parties and candidates on television. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Lau, R. R., Sigelman, L., Heldman, C., & Babbitt, P. (1999). The effects of negative political advertisements: A meta-analytic assessment. American Political Science Review, 93, 851– 875.
- Wattenberg, M. P., & Brians, C. L. (1999). Negative campaign advertising: Demobilizer or mobilizer? American Political Science Review, 93, 891– 899.