Political Cynicism and Negative Campaigns: Does One Make the Other More Effective?
42 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2012 Last revised: 16 Aug 2012
Date Written: 2012
Despite the lingering suspicions of many Americans, there is little evidence to support the notion that increased negativity in campaign politics has contributed to the erosion of public trust in government over the past few decades. In this paper, we use data from a controlled experiment to look at the relationship between negative campaigning and political trust in a different light. The so-called “figure-ground hypothesis” suggests that one reason why negative information is (sometimes) more effective than positive information in shaping people’s perceptions and behavior is because the former tends to “stand out” in a world where most of us have positive expectations of others – including public figures, if not always politicians as a class. Accordingly, we would expect that negative campaign ads are most effective (in terms of shaping citizens’ vote preferences and candidate evaluations) among those who express a high level of trust in their political leaders. The catch, of course, is that high levels of trust are relatively uncommon in contemporary U.S. politics, in which case negative appeals presumably play to a smaller audience than many candidates and consultants seem to believe. In fact, our data provide only limited support for the figure-ground hypotheses and show instead that a well-conceived negative campaign ad can influence the choices of voters regardless of their underlying feelings about government.
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