The Myth of Going Negative

The 2012 U.S. presidential race is heating up as the Republican Party wrapped up its national convention last week and the Democratic Party heads into its national convention this week. With the conventions serving as both an official and symbolic start to the general election, the barrage of negative advertisements and attacks coming from both sides is seemingly growing stronger.

This presidential election cycle has seen a record amount of negativity that many in the news media as well as political circles have incessantly called out as antithetical to the democratic process. While much of the negativity can be traced back to the many attack ads seen on TV and the Internet, the news media are also fueling the general tone by emphasizing this negativity. Headlines have ranged from the exploratory, “Negative presidential campaign ads going to new extremes” and “New Week Brings More Negative Ads”, to downright condemnation, “Voters Disgusted with Negative Ads” and“Too Negative: Voters Blast Obama, Romney Ads.” And, in what is perhaps the most meta headline (and ad) of the bunch, the Huffington Post declared, “Mitt Romney Ad Attacks Obama For Negative Ads” (video below).

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism provides evidence to the levels of negativity this election cycle has demonstrated. In a study released at the end of August, “The Master Character Narratives in Campaign 2012,” Pew examined the “dominant or master narratives in the press about the character and record of presidential contenders.” The study found that 72 percent of media coverage has been negative for Barack Obama and 71 percent has been negative for Mitt Romney. This is a substantial number for both candidates—and surprisingly equitable too, since both campaigns continue to condemn the other for negative campaign ads, when in fact both are fully engaged in producing attack ads. These numbers are considerably higher than 2008’s, when a similar Pew study found negative media coverage to be a low 31 percent for Obama and 57 percent for John McCain.

The news media is not only highlighting negative campaign ads and attacks, but then going on to condemn the high levels of negativity seen this election cycle. (This may be indicative of a larger feedback loop phenomenon in American media and politics.)  Where the negativity is coming from or which campaign is being more negative are not the questions. The real question is, so what? This isn’t the first, nor is it the last, time politicians will engage in “dirty politics”—so why call foul?

In June, New York Magazine’s Frank Rich wrote an essay about the merits of negative campaigning, calling it an essential part of winning. “The president, any president, should go negative early, often, and without apology if the goal is victory. The notion that negative campaigning is some toxic modern aberration in American democracy is bogus,” he wrote. Rich goes on to trace the most negative and nasty campaigns in U.S. history, and to great aplomb. And he has a good point—going negative may very well be essential to winning a presidential election and should not be regarded as a failure of the American polity.

Every four years, Americans circle back to a romanticized version of presidential campaigning, one where candidates point out each others’ positive attributes and applaud each others’ leadership. This fantasy version of campaigning never really plays out unless a candidate is winning political points for going positive, or staying “above the fray.” As the news headlines have acutely pointed out, voters are “shocked” and “disgusted” by the levels of negativity in the 2012 election, even though the same electorate was just as shocked and disgusted by negativity four years ago, and eight years ago and so forth. The reality is that we hold our candidates and politicians to a higher level of integrity in rhetoric only. Winning a presidential election is about chipping away at the credibility of one’s opponent, which is made easier and quicker by going negative. In this way, going negative is essential to winning, regardless of how voters feel about the practice.

There have been many academic studies that have highlighted the merits of going negative and explored possible effects on the electorate. Among these, Freedman and Goldstein (1999) conducted a study that measured the effects of negative campaign ads. Their research was based on the then-existing notion that media exposure to negative ads depressed voter turnout. Surprisingly, their study found the exact opposite: exposure to negative ads actually increased the likelihood of voting by acting as a stimulator. Cited in their study, Lau (1985) notes that there is “greater weight given to negative information relative to equally extreme and equally likely positive information.”

Lau (1985) offers two explanations for the effects of going negative: the “figure-ground hypothesis” and the “cost-orientation hypothesis.” The figure-ground hypothesis posits negative information “may be perpetually more salient, more easily noticed, and therefore more readily processed” than positive information. Put simply, negative ads stand out over positive ads, which may be why they have become a stalwart of sorts in presidential campaigns. Secondly, the cost-orientation hypothesis posits “people are more strongly motivated to avoid costs than to approach gains.” In this way, voters are concerned about protecting their interests and avoiding risk, which are themes found in many negative ads. For example, various Obama ads have featured the charge that Romney will, if elected president, raise taxes on the middle-class. Based on Lau’s hypothesis, it’s easy to see how a viewer would take notice to such an accusation.

So why does going negative continue to get so much attention? There remains a myth in American politics that going negative somehow betrays an electoral ideal of fair, clean play. But politics is inherently uneven and definitely dirty, and the U.S.’s greatest politicians have understood this well. Their record of winning proves it. Our fear may simply lie in a betrayal of an intangible, American ideal. An ideal that is just that—something to aspire to and work toward, but one that rarely comes to fruition due to the campaign realities of running for president.

As Obama and Romney continue to duke it out this fall, it may be wise to remain cognizant of the fact that American elections have a long and storied history of nastiness and that negative campaigning is not unique to the 2012 election. This election’s high levels of negativity could very well set a new modern-day precedent for presidential elections, or it could simply be a continuation of what’s been a common circumstance in American politics since its founding. What’s certain is that elections are about winning—and the campaign that understands this best will not pretend that going negative is a breach of the polity.

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Andrew Lewandowski is a Georgetown University graduate student in the Communication, Culture & Technology program.