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Americans tend to see negative campaign ads as just that: negative. Pundits, journalists, voters, and scholars frequently complain that such ads undermine elections and even democratic government itself. But John G. Geer here takes the opposite stance, arguing that when political candidates attack each other, raising doubts about each other’s views and qualifications, voters—and the democratic process—benefit.
In Defense of Negativity, Geer’s study of negative advertising in presidential campaigns from 1960 to 2004, asserts that the proliferating attack ads are far more likely than positive ads to focus on salient political issues, rather than politicians’ personal characteristics. Accordingly, the ads enrich the democratic process, providing voters with relevant and substantial information before they head to the polls.
An important and timely contribution to American political discourse, In Defense of Negativity concludes that if we want campaigns to grapple with relevant issues and address real problems, negative ads just might be the solution.
— Dan Balz
— Christopher Shea
— Mark Thomas Rice
— Nicholas A. Valentino
— Richard R. Lau
— Bethany L. Albertson
— Scott D. McClurg
ATTACK ADS IN PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS
Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
The Need for Negativity: An Introduction
Negative advertising is the crack cocaine of politics.
SENATOR TOM DASCHLE
Senator Daschle's comment is more colorful than most, but its basic conclusion is not unique. There is a consensus among policy-makers and political elites that attack advertising in campaigns, like crack cocaine, is dangerous to the well-being of our society. Hardly a day goes by during an election season without some discussion of "negativity" and its adverse impact on our electoral process. We are, in effect, awash in a sea of negativity about negativity. David Broder, the dean of political journalists, claims that "trivial is too kind a word" for the content of today's campaigns, arguing that "the ads people are seeing are relentlessly negative: loaded words and nasty implications about the opposition candidates; often never a hint as to why a voter should support the person paying for the TV spot." Another observer, Victor Kamber (1997, xiii), argues that negativity poisons the political debate by presenting arguments that are "ridiculous, irrelevant, and irresponsible,"dragging down the discussion "to the level of tabloid scandal."
These types of concerns are commonplace. The title of Kathleen Jamieson's (1992) book represents the typical sentiment of pundits: Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy. There is an unusually strong association between negativity and deception. Consider the fact that we rarely label negativity as "tough, competitive politics" or "heated exchanges" between combatants. Instead, it is almost always equated with being "dirty"-something that is "not fair," "below the belt," and in need of a good "cleaning."
The public shares this distaste for negative advertising. As Larry Bartels (2000, 1) notes, the "ordinary citizen's perception of the electoral process is marked by cynicism and dissatisfaction with the nature and tone of the contemporary campaign discourse." In poll after poll, data confirm Bartels's observation. In July 2000, nearly 60% of the public, according to a Gallup Poll, was dissatisfied with how candidates conduct their campaigns (Brooks 2000a). A major part of the public's unhappiness with elections was tied to negativity. Only 19% of the public felt that negative advertisements even had "a place in campaigns." The vast majority of citizens do not even think you can learn anything of value from negative advertisements. In the 2000 Vanishing Voter survey, 75% of the public thought that "candidates [were] more concerned with fighting each other than solving the nation's problems" (Patterson 2002, 51). Two years later, a different poll found that "eight in ten voters say negative, attack oriented campaigning is unethical and damaging our democracy." In February 2004, 81% of the public in a poll sponsored by the Pew Research Center indicated that negative campaigns bothered them "somewhat" (20%) or "very much" (61%). Headlines, such as the one in USA Today on October 22, 2002, capture the electorate's general sentiment quite well: " Orgy of Negativity Has Many Voters Disgusted."
Scholars often join the fray, arguing that negativity has detrimental effects on the political process. Perhaps the most important of these concerns involves the so-called demobilization hypothesis. Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar (1995) contend that negative advertising disenfranchises voters by turning them off from the political process. Ansolabehere and Iyengar are sufficiently worried about the pernicious effects of negativity that they offer recommendations designed to decrease the use of attack ads in political campaigns. Thomas Patterson (2002, 51) shares this basic concern when he observes that "negative politics appears to wear some people down to the point where they simply want less of politics." Bruce Buchanan (2000, 364) too complains about negativity, arguing that candidates "should emphasize their own plans and qualifications and strike tones much more likely to inspire than alienate."
In short, worries about negativity lie at the very center of concerns about the health of our electoral system and whether that system promotes a process that can be thought of as democratic. These are serious concerns that warrant serious attention. The problem is that we are all too quick to criticize the system and wring our hands over the ill-effects of negativity. We need to pause, reconsider starting assumptions, and marshal systematic data that will allow us to assess more fully these fears and concerns. For example, why are political commentators so troubled by negativity? Any deliberative process usually benefits from having criticism and debate. Why would attacks in campaigns be so problematic? Why do they not advance the debate? Politics is often rough and tumble; why isn't attack advertising thought of in those terms? Why are we so worried about "civility" in campaigns? If some aspect of a candidate's record is alarming, is it not important to raise that concern in an attention grabbing fashion? Shouldn't the public understand the seriousness of the problem?
Campaigns are not feel-good exercises; they are pitched battles for control of the government. The stakes are often high and the competition is usually fierce. The real issue should be whether or not candidates present the information in campaigns that is useful to voters. The tone of that information should be a secondary issue, at best.
This book seeks to advance our understanding of negativity in campaigns, in general, and attack advertising, in particular. My focus is on the ads presidential candidates' have aired on television over the last the last five decades and the quality of information contained in those commercials. I shall tackle the topic of negativity from normative, empirical, and theoretical perspectives. The end result will be a set of ideas and evidence that I hope will help to stem this tide of disgust and help to forge a reevaluation of the merits of negativity in political campaigns.
PROPAGANDA AND NEGATIVITY
We can all recall attack ads that have rubbed us the wrong way. One of the most cited examples of an unfair attack is the so-called Daisy spot President Johnson's campaign ran during the 1964 presidential election. In this famous ad, a small girl is picking petals off a flower and counting the number pulled off. As she does, an ominous voice begins a countdown-"ten, nine, eight, seven, six ..." At the end of the countdown, the screen is filled with a nuclear blast, followed by Lyndon Johnson saying: "These are the stakes-to make a world in which all of God's children can live or to go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die. Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home." This ad was called "vicious," "disgusting," and "a lie." Barry Goldwater, the implicit target of the ad, responded angrily by saying, "The homes of America are horrified and intelligence of Americans insulted by weird television advertising by which this administration threatens the end of the world unless all-wise Lyndon is given the nation for his very own." Yet, defenders of the ad point out that the spot was addressing the most important issue of the time: nuclear war. It was presenting that theme against the backdrop of Goldwater's own statements about the possible use of nuclear weapons. So why should it be so unreasonable to raise an issue that was most threatening to the lives of the American people and alert voters to what candidates have said about such an important matter?
Over two decades later the Tank ad, in which George Bush criticized Michael Dukakis's views on defense, drew criticism from many quarters. For those who may not remember, this spot made use of news footage the Dukakis campaign hoped would make their candidate look tough on defense. The Governor was driving in a tank, wearing the appropriate head gear that his advisors thought would convey the pro-military image they sought. But the camera was not kind to Dukakis and the Republicans seized on the opportunity. As the tank made its turns with Dukakis giving directions and waving to the crowd, the Bush ad listed all the defense programs Dukakis opposed. To add a little spice to the attack, the Republicans inserted the sound of grinding gears to the audio, suggesting that Dukakis could not even make the tank run smoothly.
Kathleen Jamieson (1992, 6), when assessing the ad, observed that it "suffers from the weakness that pervades contemporary campaigning: It tells us what Dukakis is against but not what Bush is for." But why should that be a "weakness"? Shouldn't the public have known that Dukakis had a record of opposing various defense programs, especially with the cold war still raging? Moreover, given that Dukakis was claiming that he was strong on defense, was it not fair that the Bush campaign comment on the accuracy of that claim? Jamieson pushed further, claiming that the real problem was that the ad misrepresented Dukakis's position on the various defense programs mentioned in the spot. For example, she questions the claim in the ad that the Democrat from Massachusetts opposed "virtually every weapon system we developed," noting that Dukakis "did not oppose the Stealth Bomber but favored using it as a bargaining chip if conditions with the Soviets warranted" (1992, 7). Jamieson's complaint has some merit. Even so, the basic point remains: Dukakis was not an advocate for the Stealth Bomber.
I am reluctant to judge definitely whether the ad was "misleading" or not. The claims were surely exaggerated. But were they misleading? I am not sure. In the end, one's answer is highly dependent on one's conception of "misleading." It is probably fair to say that, on average, Bush did have a stronger record of supporting weapons systems than Dukakis. This point that may be the most relevant, since it makes the ad at least defensible and surely underscores why the ad appeared so effective (or at least drew so much commentary).
Even so, critics of attack advertising can still label these ads as misleading. Barry Goldwater, despite all the rhetoric, was not in favor of nuclear war, nor was Michael Dukakis actually a supporter of a "weak" national defense. But herein lies the central problem: propaganda, by its very nature, exaggerates. It always puts the best possible spin on an issue. No candidate can be expected to be a neutral observer, judiciously weighing the key points of contention. They are highly motivated partisans seeking control of the government, making their best case for holding that office.
What seems to go largely unnoticed by many critics of negativity is that exaggeration applies to positive propaganda as well. When Ronald Reagan touted his tax cuts in his 1984 advertisements as he sought reelection, he left out references to the large tax increase he signed into law in the middle of his first term. That should come as no surprise, but few observers label those ads as misleading. In 1988, Michael Dukakis's spots stressed the fact that he had balanced the budget in his own state of Massachusetts ten times. While the claim was technically accurate, it ignored the fact that the state's constitution required a balanced budget. Voters were encouraged to believe that Dukakis was a fiscal conservative. Was that an unfair inference? We tend to evaluate the content of attack ads and assume positive advertising is reasonable and accurate. Perhaps this inconsistency helps explain why Bob Squire once said, "most lies in politics are told in positive ads."
The underlying point here is that it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to assess with any precision whether any ad is truly misleading. By some standards, all ads are misleading in the sense they stretch the truth. The core problem is that one has to decide when exaggeration crosses the line. There are times when it is clear. But, for the most part, the issue is at best murky, because by definition the objective of propaganda is to present biased information on behalf of a candidate (or a cause). While I will address this topic in concluding chapters of this book, I will leave the assessment of whether political advertising is misleading to pundits and other scholars.
I seek, instead, to develop a general and systematic understanding of how negativity works in presidential campaigns and whether it promotes or hinders political debate. My goal is to see how negative ads affect the information environment available to voters during a campaign. Do negative ads undermine or advance the quality of information available to voters as they choose candidates? As a result, I do not examine how negativity influences voters, as it has been and continues to be ably investigated by a number of scholars (for example, Freedman and Goldstein 1999; Lau and Pomper 2002; Kahn and Kenney 1999). I am interested in the content of the ads themselves. In an important way, this project is a necessary first step in understanding the impact of negativity on the electorate. Scholars and observers need to know its shape and contours. With that empirical base, we can then build more effective research designs that will generate data that should be able to offer even sounder generalizations about the workings of attack advertising on the public.
A PLAN OF ATTACK
To advance our understanding of negativity in political campaigns, we need to accomplish a number of goals. First, we must jettison the assumption that negativity undermines democratic politics. Scholars and observers all too often start from the belief that attacks breed incivility and prevent citizens from learning about candidates' true personalities and their real plans for governing. As Kathleen Jamieson (1992, 216) reminds us, the real fear is that negativity will breed such passions that "the public will embrace a course of action not in its own interest." This starting point, as I will explain below, is problematic. Negativity plays an important and underappreciated role in democracies. In fact, I will argue that the practice of democracy requires negativity by candidates. In other words, the give and take of democratic politics demands that we know both the good and bad points of candidates and their policy goals. The opposition is well-suited to discussing the weaknesses of the other side. Therefore, in order to learn about the risks and problems associated with potential office holders, we need the opposition, in effect, to "go negative." When going negative, candidates can actually advance the debate, not undermine it. This simple point seems forgotten in many of the discussions about the subject.
As part of this effort to reassess negativity in campaigns, I seek to develop a better theoretical understanding of this type of appeal. In the third chapter, I offer such a framework. As a preview, I posit that there is an asymmetry between negative and positive campaign appeals. For a negative appeal to be effective, the sponsor of that appeal must marshal more evidence, on average, than for positive appeals. The public, like our legal system, operates on the assumption of "innocent until proven guilty." A candidate cannot, I will show, simply assert that their opposition favors a tax increase. They must provide some evidence for that claim or it does not work and may in fact backfire on the sponsor of the attack. By contrast, that same candidate can claim he or she favors a tax cut, with far less documentation. Attacks, in short, place different demands on politicians and their staffs than do self-promotional propaganda. This asymmetry leads to a number of testable hypotheses about the differences between negative and positive appeals.
The second major thrust of this project involves gathering systematic evidence about negativity in campaigns. There have been few data collected concerning the appeals candidates make to the public during campaigns. We need such evidence so we can move past the interesting, but often incomplete, narratives about the workings of political advertising, in general, and negativity, in particular. I am not the first to complain about the lack of evidence. William Riker (1996), for example, observed that "we have very little knowledge about the rhetorical content of campaigns." To fill this void, I have collected an extensive data set that seeks to measure systematically the appeals candidates have made over a sizable number of campaigns. Specifically, I have undertaken a thorough content analysis of presidential ads aired on television from 1960 to 2000. These data are unique for their detailed reading of so many political ads. For instance, I know from these data not only whether an economic issue was mentioned in an ad, but whether it was a statement about unemployment or an attack on the opposition for supporting a tax increase. I also have measures of the personal traits discussed in these political spots, along with references to what I term values-general appeals about broad themes such as neighborhood and freedom. I have also supplemented these data with interviews with political consultants, conducted some additional content analyses of the news media's coverage of negativity, and collected relevant aggregate data. These additional pieces of evidence help to flesh out my general argument about negativity.
Excerpted from In Defense of Negativity by John G. Geer Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations
1. The Need for Negativity: An Introduction
2. Assessing Negativity
3. The Information Environment and Negativity
4. Evaluating Character Attacks
5. Evaluating the Content of Negative and Positive Issue Appeals
6. Dragging the Truth into the Gutter? The News Media, Negativity and the 1988 Campaign
7. Negativity, Democracy, and the Political System