Is there any evidence of voter backlash against negative campaigning? Or do candidates persist in using negative campaign tactics because they still work?

There is a broadly held public sentiment that political campaigning is more negative and unethical than it has ever been. Whether this is historically true or not, however, is the subject of some debate. Politicians have long thrown mud at each other and the history of negative campaigning reaches back to the earliest days of this nation. Then as today, rumor and gossip feed a press and public hungry for scandalous tales.

The conventional wisdom among campaign professionals is that negative ads do, in fact, work. That is, while voters might not like negative ads, their perceptions of candidates attacked in negative ads are tarnished by the information they are exposed to.

However, surveys of voters show all negative advertising isn’t equal. According to a survey taken by the Project on Campaign Conduct voters are also capable of distinguishing between what they feel are fair and unfair “attacks” in a political campaign. At least 57% of those surveyed believe negative information provided by one candidate about his or her opponent is relevant and useful when it relates to the following:

•Talking one way and voting another

•Not paying taxes

•Accepting campaign contributions from special interests

•Current drug or alcohol abuse

•His or her voting record as an elected official

If the allegations or information presented in a negative ad are not perceived as relevant, the effects of the ad will probably be less significant.

While negative ads have the capacity to weaken political support for a candidate’s opponent, “going negative” in a campaign can also diminish how voters feel about the attacking candidate. There is a perceptible “backlash” effect when a candidate persistently publishes or airs negative information about his or her opponent, especially when that information is not perceived by voters as immediately relevant to the campaign.

So when should a candidate use negative information about an opponent? The rule of thumb for professional campaign consultants is: “Never, never use negative campaign tactics unless you have to.” Clearly, a candidate that can run an impeccably positive campaign and win by a comfortable margin is much better off running a “clean” campaign than a negative one. However, there are many instances in which a candidate cannot (at least in his or her own estimation) win simply by presenting positive information about him or herself.

Since the process of voting is a zero-sum game – with any vote taken away from an opponent generally transferred to one’s self – winning voter support can be accomplished by building strong support for yourself or by undercutting public support for your opponent. When candidates struggle in their efforts to build positive images of themselves, many choose to close the gap by tarnishing the images of their opponents.

Candidates most likely to use negative ads are challengers. Incumbents have generally spent years building positive images. However in this new era of political campaigns, there certainly appears to be a negative advertising free-for-all.

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