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Negative campaign advertising contributes to a healthy democracy, argues the political scientist


Political attack ads, widely demonized by experts and politicians, are instead some kind of multivitamin for the democratic process that arouses voter interest and participation, according to a new book co-authored by UW Madison political scientist Kenneth Goldstein .

Campaign ad examples

Political scientist Kenneth Goldstein’s new book, Campaign Advertising and American Democracy, argues that negative campaign ads like this one from the 2004 US Senate race between Arlen Specter and Pat Toomey benefit voters by showing factual differences between candidates.

Positive ads, like the following two, are often designed to play with voters’ emotions.

“There is this gut reaction that negative political advertising must have a negative impact on American politics,” says Goldstein. “Contrary to popular belief, the more people exposed to negative advertising, the more they know, the more engaged they are and the more likely they are to vote.”

The book Campaign Advertising and American Democracy, published by Temple University Press, breaks the prevailing belief that negative advertising is bad for democracy and tends to stifle voter participation.

Analyzing mountains of data, including ad purchases, ad content, voter polls, and election results, the authors consistently found that the ad with the greatest impact on voters was negative.

Goldstein says much of the criticism of negative advertising is rooted in the misconception that the American public is easily manipulated.

“People learn when they see contrasts,” he says. “If it’s white, you can’t see it. If it’s black, you can’t see it.

Likewise, Goldstein believes voters have the ability to intelligently weigh competing claims.

“With negative ads in particular, campaigns have to be very careful about the claims they make because the press scrutinizes the negative ads much more closely,” he says. “If you get an outrageous ad, it’s a boomerang on a campaign. You can certainly pick political ads that honorable people believe are over the top, but I trust that people and the political market will each other worry about.”

Goldstein directs the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which tracks and catalogs political ads and was a major source for the data used in the book. He says negative ads are meant to teach, while positive ads are often meant to play with voters’ emotions.

“Disqualified ads are more factually accurate than positive ads. Negative ads are more compliant than positive ads. Positive ads are a man who walks his dog on the beach in khaki pants or sits in front of a fireplace in a fuzzy sweater, and that’s just got it.” not a lot of information, “he says.

Goldstein’s co-authors include Michael Franz, Assistant Professor of Politics and Law at Bowdoin College; Travis Ridout, assistant professor of political science at Washington State University; and Paul Freedman, Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. Ridout and Franz received their PhD from UW-Madison.

Why does the American electorate pay attention to negative advertisements? Goldstein thinks the answer is pretty simple.

“You left for the same reason when you heard there was an argument behind school in seventh grade,” says Goldstein. “There is so much political information out there that the negative ad may have the potential to shine through.”

Well-funded national campaigns can stimulate voters with the back and forth of negative publicity, but can be harmful if they don’t respond quickly to attacks. That was evident in 2004 when John Kerry was accused by an independent group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth of inflating his own military record in Vietnam.

“There are many reasons John Kerry lost in 2004. He didn’t lose because he didn’t have enough money – he even over-advertised the Bush campaign,” he says. “You can whine about the Swift Boat ad, but the reason it was effective was because the Kerry campaign wasn’t responding quickly and was actually about three years late in responding.”

The authors’ research shows that negative advertising can lead voters to learn about political issues.

“For those who can’t get information from the news, this ad can be an abbreviation and a keyword to look for other information,” says Goldstein. “The 30-second kernel of a political ad won’t fuel people’s political knowledge, but if it builds on what they already know or encourages them to look elsewhere for information, it can be effective.”

What many contemporary critics of negative campaigning fail to realize is that negative advertising is a tradition deeply rooted in the American political system, he adds.

“To say that American politics was this high-profile debate 50, 60, 100 or 200 years ago is just wrong,” says Goldstein. “The Declaration of Independence is a negative ad that outlines a number of grievances we have had with the British. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were negative politics. The main reason Abraham Lincoln didn’t use negative ads was that there was no television if he had. “


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