- - Wednesday, April 15, 2015



By Kyle Mattes and David P. Redlawsk

The University of Chicago Press, $25, 256 pages

There’s a popular narrative in U.S. politics these days. The Democrats dislike the Republicans. The Republicans dislike the Democrats. The American voter dislikes the Democrats and Republicans for what they’ve done, and still do, to politics and elections.

Hence, modern election campaigns are now perceived as being increasingly negative in tone, tempo, style and demeanor. This has led to even more voter frustration, and created a rather vicious cycle of political parties constantly ignoring the will of the people.

Is all of this accurate?

There’s no question that a negative association with politics exists in the United States and other nations. Yet, the waves of negativity many people claim to dislike in campaigning may not be as vilified as we’ve been led to believe.

Kyle Mattes and David P. Redlawsk’s new book, “The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning,” attempts to shift academic research and popular thinking on this important subject. The former is an assistant political science professor at the University of Iowa — and the latter, a political science professor at Rutgers University, has won local elections as both a Republican and Democrat. They set out to prove that, believe it or not, “voters can actually accept negativity as a legitimate part of the political environment.”

It should be noted that Mr. Mattes and Mr. Redlawsk aren’t the first individuals to question the voter’s perception of negative campaigning. Vanderbilt University Professor John Geer’s book, “In Defense of Negativity” (2006), holds that honor. Yet the co-authors have, with the use of various surveys and data collection, identified some surprisingly positive aspects about the so-called negative campaign.

The book outlines three main positions that fly in the face of negative campaigning. First, “voters are not as negative about negativity as much of the polling and many observers seem to suggest.” Second, “negativity carries valuable information about the candidates, information that voters otherwise would not have received.” Third, “while candidates can make use of negativity to transmit information that benefits voters, the specific content of their attacks matter.”

Some of these positions will surely puzzle readers at first glance. However, when you sit back and think about it, they’re remarkably logical in theory.

For example, there is widespread confusion about defining and measuring exact levels of negativity during campaigns. As the two academics write, “the literature on negative campaigning is as voluminous as it is inconclusive.” To wit, there’s no real consensus about what does or doesn’t constitute a negative reaction on the part of voters.

It’s not terribly surprising to hear this, however. Opinions about things like political messages, attack ads, strategy during debates, TV and newspaper coverage and even punditry have always been diverse and wide-reaching. It also means voters might be able to recognize negativity — but can also be persuaded that negativity may or may not exist in certain situations.

Consider this excellent case study. In one chapter, Mr. Mattes and Mr. Redlawsk measure voter response to real campaign ads. There were “four different experiments, three of which were description-based and one of which used real-world ads.” Unsurprisingly, voters were able to “identify negative ads and respond differently to those they consider negative” and “neatly universally opposed to negative ads when they are described as such by pollsters.”

Here’s where it gets interesting.

“When the ads are presented without an explicit cue regarding their negativity — that is, voters get to decide for themselves what is negative,” according to the authors, “the responses are nuanced, recognizing differences across topics and also the negative or defamatory nature of the ads.” Moreover, “and this is key, there is relatively little evidence of a backlash against the sponsors of negativity, which makes sense if voters see value in negative ads, not just unmitigated useless negativity.”

In their defense, Mr. Mattes and Mr. Redlawsk write, “[w]e think that voters are smart enough to assess the ads on their own merits.” Nevertheless, I believe there is a significant degree of voter naivete that exists, whether we like to admit it or not. Political parties and candidates have often used it to their advantage, after all. The book itself even examines the positions of sophisticated and naive voters, correctly noting “most real voters lie somewhere in between.”

There’s a real science (or, if you like, method to the madness) to running an effective election for a candidate and party. By repeatedly turning a negative into a positive during a campaign, you’ll be much closer to achieving this ultimate goal.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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