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Sigelman and Kugler: Why is research on the effects of negative campaigning so inconclusive

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Sigelman and Kugler. 2003. Why is research on the effects of negative campaigning so inconclusive?. JOP 65: 142-60.

Puzzle

Despite the common wisdom that says negative campaigns matter, previous studies have failed to find consistently significant effects (Lau et al. 1999). Why?

Solution/Argument

Social scientists do not perceive negativity the way the public does. Social scientists code ads as negative if they focus on the opposing candidate instead of promoting the sponsoring candidate. But citizens don't all perceive the same ads as negative. First, it may take a lot of negative advertising before a significant number of people are even aware of the ads. But more importantly, people might be biased in predictable ways in their evaluation of an ad's negativity.

Hypotheses

  1. People do not all agree on a campaign's degree of negativity.
  2. If there were a consensus, it wouldn't match what social scientists perceive as negativity.
  3. Perceptions of a campaign's negativity vary from person to person, depending on factors like efficacy, partisanship, candidate loyalty, length of campaign remaining, political information, and response order.

Data

Using NES data from 1998 gubernatorial campaigns in California, Georgia, and Illinois campaigns (and comparing it with their coding of campaigns as "negative" according to content analysis of newspaper coverage and TV ads), the authors confirm all of their hypotheses.

  • The people in the three states were asked to give their perceptions of the governor's race (how negative/positive).
  • The authors compare these perceptions with the standard social science codings of the ads and news coverage of the campaigns.
  • People perceived the Georgia campaign as negative--it was highly personal and so negative it was toxic. But they didn't see Illinois and California as being as negative. These campaigns were negative only in the sense social scientists define it: they featured ads criticizing the opponent's positions and record. But these ads had issue content, they weren't mere vitriol. Citizens see them as politics, but not unusually negative.