Negative campaign ads get results, professors find

Published On:
Monday, September 29, 2008
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Candidates run misleading and unethical campaign advertisements because they get results, two ASU professors said.

Political science professors Kim Fridkin and Patrick Kenney recently conducted a national survey of 700 people and discovered relevant negative campaign messages produce the most negative evaluations of a targeted candidate.

Kenney said negative messages grab the viewers’ attention.

“Negative information is more eye-catching,” Kenney said. “Most negative ads describe some kind of risk for the voter, so people pay more attention to the risks.”

The professors discovered a trend between the volume of negative messages in an election and voter turnout.

“I was most surprised to find that certain types of negative campaigning actually stimulate people to turn out to vote,” Fridkin said in an e-mail.

The professors also found voters were most receptive to the negative campaign messages that attacked a candidate’s political views and effectiveness in government as opposed to ads that attack a candidate’s personal lives.

Voters discern between relevant and irrelevant campaign messages, the professors found. Participants considered messages focused on the issues more relevant than messages about a candidate’s divorce record.

While the professors found relevant negative advertising could increase voter turnout, irrelevant messages can prompt voters to stay home.

“If the negative ads focusing on irrelevant topics and delivered in an uncivil matter increase, this could turn people away from the candidate airing these ads,” Fridkin said. “It could encourage people’s evaluations to become more negative concerning government and it could lead them to stay home on Election Day.”

ASU Young Democrats President Lisa Fernandez said she believes negative campaign messages about a candidate’s personal life distract voters from the issues.

“I think it is appalling when people are more familiar with a candidate’s personal life rather than policy issues,” said Fernandez, a political science senior.

The professors said they predict this election will be like every election before it and do not expect either campaign to let up on the negative messages.

The 2008 presidential election has been a battleground for negative political campaign advertisements. Barack Obama and John McCain have been criticized by independent fact-checking organizations for airing advertisements that are misleading, distorted or blatantly untruthful.

Although candidates often misrepresent the facts in their advertisements, the current presidential candidates are including blatant falsehoods in their advertisements, Kenney said.

The Obama campaign incorrectly linked McCain’s views on immigration to the harshly critical views of Rush Limbaugh in a recent Spanish-language television advertisement, according to FactCheck.org.

The McCain campaign falsely claimed in a television ad that Obama would raise taxes on working American families, even though Obama’s economic plan looks to cut taxes for the majority of American families, according to FactCheck.org.

ASU College Republicans President Benjamin Stewart said he is tired of the negative campaigning.

Stewart, a political science senior, said he believes negative campaigning disregards voters’ intelligence and shifts the focus away from what should really matter in the campaign.

“Americans deserve better. We deserve to not be treated as if we will believe anything that is put on the television or the Internet,” Stewart said. “We are wise to the games in politics, and many people know not to take a campaign ad as factual information.”

Reach the reporter at lauren.gambino@asu.edu.