Want to say something about politics that makes you seem smart? Try this: “Negative attacks suppress voter turnout.” This is one of the most deeply held truisms in American politics. The Big Feet in Washington regard the casual relationship between negative campaigning and low voter turnout as an absolute truth. In his 1996 navel-gazer on the presidential election, longtime political journalist Jack Germond blamed negative attacks—and not the fact that even my dog could tell Bill Clinton was going to win—for the lowest turnout in 72 years. Germond quoted Curtis Gans, the director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, as saying, “The mudslinging disgusted the public to the point where more than half of the eligible voters simply washed their hands of the whole business and stayed home on election day.”
Repeating the mud-keeps-voters-from-voting mantra makes you sound smart on National Public Radio too, as NPR’s Elizabeth Arnold proved during a roundtable discussion about the 2000 South Carolina Republican Presidential Primary. “What observers have historically found is that negative campaigns suppress turnout,” she said.
The easy conclusion from all this negativity about negativity is that people like me—opposition researchers, dirt diggers, muckrakers—are killing democracy. As one influential study (Patrick J. Kenney’s “Do Negative Campaigns Mobilize or Suppress Turnout? Clarifying the Relationship Between Negativity and Participation”) put it, “Our most troubling finding is that negative or attack advertising actually suppresses turnout.… We would even go so far as to say that negative advertisements may pose a serious antidemocratic threat.”
If only we could have positive, issue-based campaigns, the fantasy goes, then more people would vote. If only we could get campaigns to stop throwing mud and stick to the issues, armies of disaffected citizens would come out to vote.
That’s all great, except for one small problem. It’s a load of horse spit and bull corn. Boring campaigns bore voters. Negative campaigns, properly done, engage voters and can actually increase turnout.
That’s not what most political scientists will tell you, however. The political science industry—a bunch of grad students and professors, many of whom have never actually worked on a campaign—says that the causal relationship between negative campaigning and voter turnout is inconclusive, but that the attack ads make voters want to vomit. They say that attack ads create a backlash against the candidate making the charge and make people less likely to vote.
All of that seems to make intuitive sense, but conventional wisdom continues to ignore a small but growing body of work that finds voters are able to distinguish between useful negative attacks and shrill mudslinging. In short, relevant and tasteful negative attacks inform voters and increase turnout, while it’s really the whiny sandbox screaming makes people tune out.
Voters sift through negative attacks to decide what’s in bounds and out of bounds. Study after study, such as the 1999 report by Patrick J. Kenney shows that the more irrelevant and strident the vitriol, the less voters want to vote.
Part of the distinction lies in tone, but that’s a tough distinction to make. The easier measure is the subject of an attack. In 1998, professors Paul Freedman and Dale Lawton at the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia set out to study exactly what kinds of ads voters find repulsive.
This is where the theory that negative attacks boost turnout starts making sense. The researchers grouped typical attacks into three categories: fair, moderate, and unfair. At least two-thirds of the respondents agreed that the “fair” attacks were, well, fair, and up to two-thirds deemed the unfair ones irrelevant. Everything in the middle was “moderate,” which seems to me the wrong word, but you get the idea.
Here’s which topics respondents told researchers were “unfair” attacks: “behavior of his/her family members” (only 8 percent thought this was a fair line of attack), “personal lives of party leaders” (19 percent deemed fair), past personal troubles (26%), and past extramarital affairs (28 percent). This tells you why the illegal drinking woes of Jenna and Barbara Bush didn’t pose a political problem to their daddy. These scandals have obvious sex appeal but do not engage voters in a constructive way.
The middle group of attacks—the moderate middle of muckraking—starts to ascend into relevance. Only 37 percent think “political actions of party’s leaders” is fair, which tells me why people didn’t grab the torches and pitchforks when George W. Bush installed an Enron lobbyist as head of the Republican National Committee. “Current extramarital affairs” drew 45 percent, and “current personal troubles” got 56 percent. You ever wonder why the fact that Ken Lay’s long-time financial backing of George W. Bush wasn’t a deathblow? Only 63 percent of voters think that an attack on “taking money from individuals with ethical problems” was fair.
That leaves us with attacks that voters in the study called the most fair: “taking money from special interests” (71 percent); “his/her voting record” (71 percent); “his/her business record” (76 percent); and at 81 percent, “talking one way and voting another.” The simple truth is that voters have more sense than pundits in distinguishing between fair and unfair attacks.
Not only do voters make respectable judgments about which attacks are fair, but they pay more attention to the negative attacks than to the positive message. In 1997, Bruce Pinkerton found numerous studies about non-political advertising showing that consumers give more weight to negative information about a choice than they do to positive information.
The reason for this, Pinkerton found, is simply that negative information is easier to remember. Quick question: What was Bill Clinton’s greatest policy achievement? While you think about that, tell me why the House impeached him, the name of the woman who performed the act, what room they usually used, and what tobacco product played a role. Suddenly, that budget surplus doesn’t seem to come to the fore as easily. Pinkerton says we remember the negative more than the positive because it’s more, ahem, “emotionally arousing,” and that it is the voter’s ability to access the memory of the advertising that drives their voting behavior.
If you’re willing to let go of the notion that campaigns use negative attacks to suppress the vote, then the inescapable conclusion is that voters seek out credible negative attacks to make their decisions, are engaged by them, and go to the polls because of them. That’s exactly what the two fellows from the University of Virginia found. Their study discovered that voters were more likely to vote when exposed to increasingly fair attacks. Now who’s ruining our democracy?
What we really need to know is whether the negative attacks work only to increase voting by the respective base votes. Negative attacks would still be harmful to democracy if they suppressed independent swing voters at the expense of the participation of partisans.
Studies in fact have reached the opposite conclusion. Hard-core partisans are immune to negative communications, while the swing voters, the holy grail of close elections, are the ones most affected by negativity in campaigns. Everyone agrees that unfair, scurrilous mudslinging turns the swing voters off and makes them skip elections. But relevant and fair attacks, if done correctly, mobilize these folks.
I learned about the link between negative campaigning and higher turnout when Dan Boren hired me to help his campaign for Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional district in 2004.
Voting in the Democratic primaries in Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional district had held pretty steady in the previous two non-presidential years: 1996 (83,665 votes cast) and 2000 (88,750). We’re not talking about a giant groundswell of enthusiasm here, just the diehard Democrats who vote more reliably than they go to church on Sundays. Turnout was stable as long as the candidates kept it generally positive and the attacks very restrained.
The seat had come open again in 2004, and there was a young man with the last name of Boren thinking about getting in the race, and that’s like being a Bush in Texas or a Kennedy in Massachusetts. In 2004, Dan Boren was a 30-year-old, first-term state representative who headed up a college foundation, but that last name meant something to Democratic voters who had sent his granddaddy to Congress under FDR and his dad to the Senate and to the governor’s mansion after that. So as it turned out, my choice came down to the Boren juggernaut and a Native American former district attorney named Kalyn Free. I chose to work for Boren.
The Free-Boren race started as a fight for the Democratic primary and became ground zero in the culture wars. She started the hoopla with an ad hitting his votes on gas tax hikes. We answered with a spot attacking her for making an “unfair personal attack” because she wanted to cover up a “history of letting rapists and child molesters go free,” which our research showed that she had done as a district attorney. She then put the mother of the rape victim in a television commercial, which rocked us on our heels. We got back on track with a response about how she had given suspended sentences to a lot of sex criminals and how a judge had yelled at her from the bench for screwing up a death penalty case, accusing her of “incompetence in the first degree.” So she tried to change the subject with a commercial accusing Dan of voting to cut funding for in-home health care forcing old people (maybe your granny!) into nursing homes.
And then the race really got nasty.
We put up an ad asking, “Do you want a congressman who supports gun control, abortion on demand, and partial-birth abortion? Kalyn Free does.” And on the Sunday before the primary, some Boren field staffers leafleted church parking lots with her position in favor of gay marriage, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Amid all the brouhaha, the race might have been negative, but it wasn’t personal. Both sides tried to render the other’s flesh into Dog Chow, but we used issues (abortion, guns) and performance in office (gas tax hikes, plea bargains) as weapons. With a week remaining, both candidates had embraced negative attacks with suffocating bear hugs. Voters had to sit through one nasty ad after another just to make it to the local news broadcasts that showed how the candidates tore into each other at debates and forums. If there ever were a case to prove that negative campaigns suppressed voter turnout, this would have to be it.
Amid the salvos over the airwaves, a young man named Ben Joy was working for the Dan Boren campaign as a field grunt accompanying Boren on campaign swings throughout the district. They’d drive around in a beat-up RV to parades, where it was Joy’s job to walk a little in front of Boren along a parade route, handing out campaign literature, so that voters might have an inkling of why a young man was smiling and sticking his hand out to be shaken at a parade.
Shaking hands with strangers poses risks for a candidate running a negative television campaign. Little old ladies are liable to whack you with their canes while they shriek about how much they hate negative campaigning. But Joy found that not only was the information in the ads getting through, but the negative attacks on Kalyn Free motivated voters to seek out Dan Boren’s corresponding stands. For example, voters knew from Boren’s ads that Free opposed banning so-called late-term abortions. Joy reported that some voters actually referenced the ads in asking him where Boren stood on abortion.
If negative campaign attacks suppress turnout, then wouldn’t the voters shy away from the perpetrator instead of seeking him out to engage him on the issues?
Boren ended up winning by a far wider margin than anyone thought possible, 58 percent to 36. The stunning margin of victory got all the attention on election night, but after the numbers got crunched, Boren’s field director, Ward Curtain, realized that the turnout was enormous. Remember, only 88,750 had showed up in the 2000 Democratic primary. The Boren campaign’s optimistic hope was that 118,000 would vote. The actual turnout in this highly negative race? Try 127,307 Democrats at the polls—surpassing the 2000 race turnout by 43.4 percent.
Deserved or not, Kalyn Free received a shellacking, but the final tally doesn’t suggest that her candidacy tanked due to her negative commercials either. She received 46,061 votes in her losing bid, exceeding the 39,837 votes Brad Carson got in the 2000 Democratic Primary, and he won.
A few factors went into the surprising turnout. Redistricting after the 2000 census left the 2nd District with more Democrats than before, but the Boren campaign had taken those factors into account and still only put the best case scenario at 118,000 Democrats.
The negative attacks were exactly why Dan Boren trooped home by a big margin. The obvious truth was that the attacks energized and engaged voters by raising the stakes on cultural issues such as guns, reproductive rights, and class differences. The negative attacks engaged two dynamic personalities in a struggle, and voters responded not by expressing disgust but enthusiasm for voting.
Turns out, negative campaigning helps turnout—and democracy—if it’s done well.
This article originally appeared in the Texas Observer.