In one of many acrimonious moments in last night's debate, Barack Obama and John McCain both accused each other, rather ironically, of negative campaigning. You're the worst! No, you're the worst! The only question that matters: Does it work?
A majority of Americans (55 percent) now say that the campaign is too negative, according to a Pew Research Center poll released today. A month ago just 43 percent said so.
Samuel Bradley, an advertising professor at Texas Tech, studied peoples' "eybeblink startle reflex" in response to negative campaign ads last year. The ads enhanced the reflex, which is the beginning of our fight-or-flight response system. "The body starts preparing to move away," he said yesterday. But people remember negative ads because the brain finds them arousing. And since it's not life-or-death, the brain has time to ponder — and distort — the message.
But do get you elected? Another research team says negative ads by candidates tend to work against incumbents who use them, while challengers tend to benefit from mudslinging. In another study, researchers showed young voters negative ads from the 2004 election. Even for a candidate's supporters, an anti-opponent ad was more likely to be deemed less persuasive than a positive pro-candidate ad. But overall, negative ads prompted more movement along a scale of approval, causing voters to both strengthen their resolve and to move away from the candidate they initially supported. The findings were in the April issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
Ted Brader, a professor of political science and political psychology at the University of Michigan, had people watch a half-hour news show into which a brief political ad was inserted. Some saw positive ads and others saw negative attack ads with menacing music and imagery. After the show, those who saw the negative ad reported being the most anxious, worried and afraid, and those who saw the positive ad were the most hopeful, reassured, and confident. The latter were also more interested in the campaign.
Political scientist Kenneth Goldstein, author of "Campaign Advertising and American Democracy" (Temple University Press), argues that negative ads are "a multivitamin" for the democratic process. "There's this gut reaction that if a political advertisement is negative, it must have a deleterious affect on American politics," Goldstein says. "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." He allows, though, that negativity can go too far. "If you get an outrageous one, that tends to boomerang on a campaign." He argues that John Kerry lost to George W. Bush in 2004 — despite outspending Bush on ads — in part because of the negative ad campaign by the independent Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group that accused Kerry of inflating his military record in Vietnam.
All that said, another huge factor is at work this year: The tanking economy is all many people care about, so negative ads may not be working as they have in the past. Independent studies say a higher proportion of Sen. McCain's ads are negative than Sen. Obama's, according to this WSJ article. But they're falling on distracted ears. "You can't create a concern that doesn't already exist," Brookings Institution scholar Darrell West said.
James Leach brings up a deeper concern: "Negativity dispirits the soul of society. Candidates may prevail in elections by tearing down rather than uplifting, but they cannot then unite an angered citizenry."
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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.