Going Negative: Angry Ads and Negative Partisanship

It’s been twenty years since Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar published Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink & Polarize the ElectorateAs Luke Skywalker likes to say, it’s impressive how every word in the title ended up being wrong. Or sort of: we’re more polarized than ever, but it probably wasn’t negative political ads that made us this way. And the electorate grew as a result.

Here’s what happened: some political scientists and pundits worried that negative campaigning was damaging the amicable concord of American politics. This is just one of those evergreen cycles of hot takes: once upon a time (the halcyon 1950s), the American Political Science Association worried the parties were too similar and cordial. Then all that changed in the hyper-partisan 60s and 70s. But by the 1990s, many voters reported that they wanted more civility in campaigns and positive messages from candidates again. So we saw lots of hand-wringing, and then  Ansolabehere and Iyengar provided the data to back those anxieties up: data from US Senate elections in 1992 seemed to show an inverse relationship between exposure to negative campaign ads and turnout, as well as a decrease in confidence in the electoral process. Similar results were shown experimentally in the 1990 California’s governor’s race and the 1992 presidential race.

Proponents of positive campaign ads seem to want a world where turnout is high and the tone of the campaign is hopeful and civil, and policy disagreements are discussed in high-minded and data-driven ways. People will turn out to vote from a sense of duty to study the issues and express their preferences between two (or more!) excellent candidates. That’s what I want, too. But that’s not how people work.

People are busy, and a lot of places have near-guaranteed outcomes because of state-level polarization, district gerrymandering, and urban “party machine” politics. So a lot of them don’t show up to vote if the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion. Over time, this can become habitual. One thing that can get disaffected voters back to the polls is anger at the other party. Perhaps this is why 55% of eligible voters cast a ballot in 1992, while in 2016 60% of voters showed up. In 2016, turnout was especially high in battleground or battleground-adjacent states with shared media markets and lots of negative campaigning–like Minnesota & Wisconsin, Maine & New Hampshire, and Colorado. Turnout was especially low in solidly partisan states like Hawaii and Texas, and with good reason: voters knew their ballots wouldn’t change the outcome.

We know the Alabama Senate campaign was so negative that the losing candidate still hasn’t conceded. Yet in a deeply red state in mid-December in an odd-year special election, expected turnout was 25%; actual turnout hit 40%. People–especially African-Americans–got angry. And anger got them active.

Why would anyone doubt that getting folks pissed off encourages them to participate? My suspicion is that this is a loyalty problem. A lot of civic engagement folks want to see more democratic deliberation with our fellow citizens, and all of the evidence suggests that cross-cutting political discussions increase bipartisan knowledge but require lots of civility constraints. If you think politics in primarily what happens in your community and with your neighbors, then federal and state politics will look like a distraction. Insofar as the loud, expensive advertisements for infrequent federal elections distract from the fundamental work of organizing communities, I am sympathetic.

Most people who care about federal politics are professionals, or do so the way other people pay attention to sports: they take a side and keep score. And negative campaigning pushes this framing, making not just campaigns but political life generally seem zero sum. Of course, campaigns are zero sum. (1) But politics and policymaking can be win-win. So it’s worth noticing that campaigns in the US have grown to encompass a vast selection of partisan politics. It seems that every professional politician implicitly understands Frances Lee’s claims in Beyond Ideology (based on this Journal of Politics article) that opposition parties in Congress act to block legislation supported by the president which could be interpreted as a “win” upon which he can campaign. Merely by adding an issue to their agenda, incumbent presidents create party-line opposition for (previously) non-ideologically-charged policies.

Obviously, we live in a time of negative campaigning. And that will likely continue to have all the negative effects the research predicts: increasing polarization and reducing cross-cutting political interactions. But as Diana Mutz worried in her Hearing the Other Sidethe opposite of civility is mobilization. And we’re seeing good evidence of that in the Women’s Marches and underlying organizing by women:

The Tea Party rallies were an impressive mobilisation but they pale in comparison to the recent women’s marches. Erica Chenoweth at the University of Denver and her colleague Jeremy Pressman estimate that the 653 women’s marches across the country in January 2017 involved between 3.3m and 5.2m million people. The best guess is that 1.3% of Americans marched. The researchers also estimate that another 6,400 anti-Trump protests in America between the marches and the end of 2017 drew between 2.6m and 3.8m participants. While the women’s marches were officially non-partisan, survey evidence suggests otherwise. Michael Heaney of the University of Michigan estimates as many as 90% of the women attending the march in Washington, DC in 2017 had voted for Hillary Clinton.

The marchers did not show up for civility positive messages: they showed up because they’re angry. Marching is not organizing; it’s not a substitute for winning elections, or passing laws, or making budgets. But I think it’s time to admit that negative campaigns work to increase engagement.

Some questions remain: does negative campaigning polarize the electorate, or is it a response to that polarization? Is polarization a good thing for helping to sharpen policy disagreements or a bad thing for undermining our ability to collaborate across difference? How should we interpret these questions in the light of possible partisan realignments? Can we at least agree that the other side is wrong?


1: Except in rare cases like the Alabama Senate race when even most Republicans were privately rooting against their party’s embarrassing candidate. They still campaigned for him though, just in case he won.

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