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Negative campaign ads contribute to a healthy democracy, political scientist argues

January 14, 2008 By Dennis Chaptman

Political attack ads, widely demonized by pundits and politicians, are instead a kind of multi-vitamin for the democratic process, sparking voters’ interest and participation, according to a new book co-authored by UW–Madison political scientist Kenneth Goldstein.

Campaign ad samples

Political scientist Kenneth Goldstein’s new book, Campaign Advertising and American Democracy, argues that negative campaign ads like these from the 2004 U.S. Senate race between Arlen Specter and Pat Toomey benefit voters by presenting factual distinctions between candidates.

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Positive ads, like the two below, are often designed to play on voters’ emotions.

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"There’s this gut reaction that if a political advertisement is negative, it must have a deleterious affect on American politics," says Goldstein. "Contrary to conventional wisdom, the more that people are exposed to negative advertising, the more they know, the more engaged they are and the more likely they are to vote."

The book, Campaign Advertising and American Democracy, published by Temple University Press, pokes holes in the prevailing wisdom that negative ads are bad for democracy and tend to suppress voter involvement.

The authors analyzed mountains of data, including ad buys, advertising content, voter surveys, and election results, and consistently found that the advertisements that had the most pronounced effect on voters were negative ads.

Goldstein says much of the criticism of negative advertising is rooted in the incorrect notion that the American public is easily manipulated.

"People learn when they see contrasts," he says. "If it’s white, you don’t see it. If it’s black, you don’t see it. It’s when you see the whole painting that there is some contrast."

Similarly, Goldstein believes that voters have the ability to intelligently weigh competing claims.

"With negative ads in particular, campaigns have to be very careful about the claims they make because the press puts much more scrutiny on the negative ads," he says. "If you get an outrageous one, that tends to boomerang on a campaign. You certainly can pick out political ads that honorable people believe have gone over the line, but I trust the people and the political marketplace to take care of that."

Goldstein directs the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which tracks and catalogs political ads and which was a major source of the data used in the book. He says negative ads are designed to teach, while positive ads many times are designed to play on voters’ emotions.

"Negative ads are more likely to be factually accurate than positive ads. Negative ads are more likely to be on policy than positive ads. Positive ads are a guy walking in khakis walking on the beach with his dog or sitting in front of a fireplace in a fuzzy sweater, and that simply doesn’t have a lot of information," he says.

Goldstein’s co-authors include Michael Franz, assistant professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College; Travis Ridout, assistant professor of political science at Washington State University; and Paul Freedman, associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia. Ridout and Franz earned their doctorates at UW–Madison.

Why does the American electorate pay attention to negative ads? Goldstein thinks the answer is fairly simple.

"It’s for the same reason why when you heard there was a fight behind the school in the seventh grade, you went," Goldstein says. "There’s such a clutter of political information out there that the negative ad can have the potential to shine through."

Well-funded national campaigns have the ability to energize voters with the back-and-forth of negative ads, but can be hurt by failing to respond quickly to attacks. That was shown in 2004 when John Kerry was accused by an independent group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth of inflating his own military record in Vietnam.

"There are many reasons why John Kerry lost in 2004. He didn’t lose because he didn’t have enough money — he actually out-advertised the Bush campaign," he says. "You can whine about the Swift Boat ad, but the reason it was effective was because the Kerry campaign didn’t respond swiftly, and in fact responded about three years too late."

The authors’ research shows that negative ads can prompt voters to become more informed on political issues.

"For those people who aren’t getting information from the news, that ad can be a shortcut and cue to go out and search for other information," Goldstein says. "The 30-second kernel of a political ad isn’t going to feed people’s political knowledge, but if it builds on knowledge they already have or if it encourages them to seek out information in other places, it can be effective."

What many of the contemporary critics of negative campaign advertising fail to recognize is that negative advertising is a tradition with deep roots in the American political system, he adds.

"To say that American politics, 50 years ago, 60 years ago, 100 years, or 200 years ago was this high-brow debate is just simply wrong," Goldstein says. "The Declaration of Independence is a negative ad, outlining a bunch of gripes we had with the British. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were negative politics. The major reason Abraham Lincoln did not use negative ads was that TV didn’t exist. If it did exist, he would have."