Negativity in the Evaluation of Political Candidates - Is Election Mud-slinging Effective?

American presidential elections are becoming notorious for growing increasingly negative. But how effective is this in attracting voters, especially the famous "swing" voters. INSEAD Associate Professor of Marketing Jill Klein and co-author Prof. Rohini Ahluwalia have re-examined the overall findings of the impression formulation studies of the 1980s that overwhelmingly demonstrated a robust negativity effect. Their results may influence how campaign strategies are conducted in future - it turns out most voters vote against presidential candidates, not for them.

by Jill Klein, Rohini Ahluwalia
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

It would seem that successive American presidential elections have tended to see the most ruthless and relentless mudslingers triumph. An increasing percentage of campaign funds is being spent on negative attack advertising at all stages of presidential races, in the belief that this tends to hit home more often with voters. However, recent data tends to demonstrate that overt negativity in US political campaigns often disenfranchises voters, resulting in lower turnout, and in voter involvement generally.

INSEAD Associate Professor of Marketing Jill Klein and Prof. Rohini Ahluwalia of the University of Minnesota re-examine the overall findings of the impression formulation studies of the 1980s that overwhelmingly demonstrated a robust negativity effect in laboratory contexts. These results led many to conclude that however popular a given presidential candidate may initially be, his perceived negative qualities will matter more to the average voter than his virtues. In short, most voters vote against presidential candidates, not for them.

The authors consider two conceptual models that have become well accepted among scholars in explaining this negativity effect. The Perceptual Figure Ground Explanation posits that people generally exhibit a "person personality bias"; they have positive expectations of others, and negatives stand out against these positive expectations.

Recent research in marketing and social psychology, however, reveals that motivations effect such judgements. Motivation-based explanations suggest that the negativity effect is not, in fact, universal. Rather, a voter's preferences will normally determine whether a particular candidate's negatives are weighed more heavily. This would mean that the "swing voters" who are credited with determining the last few election outcomes will not demonstrate any meaningful negativity effects, since by definition they will not have strong preferences for any one candidate.

After reviewing recent motivational research, the authors hypothesise that voters are likely to consider a presidential candidate's weaknesses more telling than his strengths only when they are motivated to view him negatively (i.e., prefer the opponent, and/or dislike the candidate). They go on to explain why negative campaign information is not likely to have a greater impact than positive information during the bruising presidential state caucuses and primaries, when most candidates have yet to be met with a concerted block of opponents.

In two separate studies, Klein and Ahluwalia examine prior evidence of negativity in political evaluations, and speculate that assessments of negativity at an aggregate level conceal substantial differences among different segments of the American electorate. Study 1 consists of a reanalysis of data from the 1992 election, the most recent having a published negativity effect study, and an analysis of the 1996 election.

Study 2 re-evaluates the findings of the influential NES Super Tuesday study of 1988, which was conducted during the early primary season. The authors conclude that the absence of any significant negativity effect for most candidates at this initial stage supports their theorising. They end with a detailed consideration of the implications their findings may have on both political and non-political marketing management in future elections.

Journal of Marketing, January 2005

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