The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning
by Kyle Mattes and David P. Redlawsk
University of Chicago Press, 2015
Cloth: 978-0-226-20202-0 | Paper: 978-0-226-20216-7 | Electronic: 978-0-226-20233-4
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226202334.001.0001


Turn on the television or sign in to social media during election season and chances are you’ll see plenty of negative campaigning. For decades, conventional wisdom has held that Americans hate negativity in political advertising, and some have even argued that its pervasiveness in recent seasons has helped to drive down voter turnout. Arguing against this commonly held view, Kyle Mattes and David P. Redlawsk show not only that some negativity is accepted by voters as part of the political process, but that negative advertising is necessary to convey valuable information that would not otherwise be revealed.

The most comprehensive treatment of negative campaigning to date, The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning uses models, surveys, and experiments to show that much of the seeming dislike of negative campaigning can be explained by the way survey questions have been worded. By failing to distinguish between baseless and credible attacks, surveys fail to capture differences in voters’ receptivity. Voters’ responses, the authors argue, vary greatly and can be better explained by the content and believability of the ads than by whether the ads are negative. Mattes and Redlawsk continue on to establish how voters make use of negative information and why it is necessary. Many voters are politically naïve and unlikely to make inferences about candidates’ positions or traits, so the ability of candidates to go on the attack and focus explicitly on information that would not otherwise be available is crucial to voter education.


Kyle Mattes is assistant professor of political science at the University of Iowa. David P. Redlawsk is professor of political science at the Eagleton Institute’s Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. He is coauthor of several books, including Why Iowa?, also published by the University of Chicago Press.


“As America continues to polarize, the frequency of attacks in campaigns will only increase. Despite evidence showing that negativity has many payoffs, there is still substantial doubt about such claims. This book enters that breach with a timely array of data and theory that should find many interested readers.”
— John G. Geer, Vanderbilt University

“Much ink has been spilled to investigate the effects of negativity in politics, but our understanding of this topic remains speculative at best. Readers who are serious about cracking this nut must read this book. Mattes and Redlawsk reconceptualize the concept of negativity in political campaigns, showing that it is not merely instances of one candidate talking about an opponent—as most studies consider it to be—but a far more complicated and multidimensional concept that must take into account substantive content. Readers are guaranteed to experience an ‘ah-ha!’ moment at least a few times.”
— Costas Panagopoulos, Fordham University

“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. Mattes and Redlawsk’s new book attempts to shift academic research and popular thinking on this important subject.”
— Washington Times

“The campaign ads from 2012 were more negative than the ads in 2008, 2008’s were more negative than 2004’s and, you guessed it, 2004’s more negative than 2000’s. But far from disparaging the form, . . . I celebrate it. Negative campaigning is a genuine positive for democracy. I come to my understanding from paging through a new book, The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning, by Kyle Mattes and David P. Redlawsk.”
— Politico

“What is the appropriate response to the coming deluge of negativity? Mattes and Redlawsk make a convincing case that the most appropriate response is ‘so what?’ . . .  The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning is both engaging and important. In casting a more nuanced lens on one of the most maligned forms of political communication, this book should lead scholars to new agendas and research questions.”
— Public Opinion Quarterly

“Students of campaigns and elections will find this book informative, and practitioners will benefit from the many examples that support the sophisticated political science. . . . Recommended.”
— Choice

The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning is a useful and needed reminder not to slide into the habit of bemoaning negative campaigning. It is a trap that is easy to fall into, especially given media narratives about negative campaigns. But Mattes and Redlawsk examine the topic with fresh eyes, pointing out that it is as easy to lie about oneself in a positive ad as it is to lie about an opponent in a negative ad. At the same time, the book is a useful reminder that voters are more competent than we sometimes may believe.”
— Congress and the Presidency



DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226202334.003.0001
[Negative campaigning, politics, formal model, political campaigns, Geer, Mourdock, Akin, backlash, negativity, public opinion]
This chapter challenges the conventional wisdom that voters have a strong aversion to negative campaigns. It also challenges the common belief that negative campaigning is harmful to the political environment. Building on the work of John Geer and others who defend negative campaigning, this chapter expands on their views to argue that negativity is such an integral part of the political system that its elimination would prove harmful. Real-world examples from US Congressional elections are used to support this claim. Finally, the chapter explains how this book uses multiple methodological approaches--formal modeling, experimentation, and surveys--to better understand the role negativity in American campaigns. (pages 1 - 23)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226202334.003.0002
[Negative campaigning, politics, media, fact-check, Politifact, Romney, Obama, Pinocchios]
Every election is the most negative election ever, or so the claim is made. This chapter begins by reviewing the broad contours of the existing literature on negative campaigning, starting from the work of Ansolabehere and Iyengar and examines how the scholarly perspective on negativity has evolved. Whether the media or the candidates themselves should present negative information is considered, with evidence provided to explain why it is difficult for the media to do so. The political media are given other responsibilities such as reporting speculating on the effectiveness of the candidates' campaigns, and it is difficult to call out a candidate for not telling the truth without in some way helping to disseminate the candidate's message. Also discussed is whether candidates and/or voters ignore fact-checking attempts by the media. The conclusion is that candidates must police each other, which they do via negative campaigns. (pages 24 - 49)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226202334.003.0003
[Negative campaigning, politics, survey, backlash, campaign, affect, anger, attitudes, clean money, religion, family]
There seems to be no avoiding the accumulation of evidence that voters do not like negative campaigning, given the consistent opposition they express in surveys. This chapter challenges that evidence as part of the larger argument that negativity plays an important and valuable role in political campaigns. Survey experiment results show that while large majorities of voters appear to oppose "negative campaigning," much of this dislike stems from the use of the word "negative". When asked about the activity of negative campaigning--talking about an opponent's record--without labelling it "negative", voters responded much more favorably. Also, reactions to ads depend much more on the topics of the ads than whether or not the opponent is mentioned, which means that candidates in most cases do not fear voter backlash from negative campaigns. (pages 50 - 70)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226202334.003.0004
[Negative campaigning, politics, affect, anger, defamatory, negative, positive, Dole]
This chapter analyses responses from an experiment in which subjects were shown a mix of real-world positive and negative political ads. Results support key findings from the population-based survey experiments reported in the previous chapter. Participants in this study differentiate negative ads by topic, and in the main, most of the topics do not bother them very much, even when the ads themselves are perceived to be negative. The levels of self-reported anger varied much more among negative than positive ads, as did assessments of believability, appropriateness, and negativity. With the exception of two clearly defamatory ads, there was no evidence of a backlash effect from negativity. (pages 71 - 99)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226202334.003.0005
[Negative campaigning, politics, game theory, formal model, campaigns, Bayesian inference, candidates, voters]
Formal models of candidate and voter election behavior often assume that the voters are Bayesian learners who are able to draw inferences not only from the choices candidates make, but also from choices that the candidates do not make. This chapter uses a formal model and experiment designed to test the extent of voter updating and how it affects campaign strategies. Results show that voter behavior tends toward quite incomplete updating, which in turn leads candidates to increase their use of negative campaigning. (pages 100 - 133)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226202334.003.0006
[Negative campaigning, politics, trust, truth, credible, believable, false, lying]
Though desperate and/or unscrupulous politicians may resort to lies, and sometimes these lies are negative campaigns, one should not draw the conclusion that falsehoods and negativity are inexorably linked. This chapter focuses on the distinction between lies and negativity, which has been written about but has usually been ignored in surveys and experiments studying negative campaigning. It presents results from survey questions asking about the believability and appropriateness of both hypothetical and real-world political advertisements. It is shown that many people do in fact link "negative" and "false" (or "unbelievable"), something that the standard definition of negativity does not do. Also, the cognitive (believability) assessments of ads are shown to be better predictors of vote intentions than both anger responses and appropriateness assessments. (pages 134 - 170)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226202334.003.0007
[Negative campaigning, politics, trust, truth, credible, believable, false, lie, formal model, game theory]
This chapter expands on the formal model of negative campaigning from Chapter 5. The extended model, which involves candidates campaigning by delivering information to voters, allows for the possibility of candidates revealing false information. As in Chapter 5, this model is used in a game theoretic experiment, here to address the interaction between negativity and believability. It shows that the possibility of dealing with liars causes people to make mistakes that they otherwise would have avoided. Attitudinally, the results show that those distrustful of the media's ability to uncover candidates' lies and those who think candidates should expose opponents' lies both are less likely to vote correctly in ambiguous situations. This chapter concludes that voters are much more skeptical about the truth of negative campaigns, even when there is no basis for such scepticism, and without such negative campaigning would be even more effective in presenting information. (pages 171 - 196)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226202334.003.0008
[Negative campaigning, politics, formal model, political campaigns, Geer, backlash, Obama, Romney, democracy, truth]
This chapter reviews the main findings in the book. First, voters are not as bothered by negativity as many seem to think they are. Much of the disdain voters express in survey questions about negativity is an artifact of the way they are asked about it. Second, voters need negativity because they appear unable to make inferences in the absence of positive information. As the experiments show, voters generally fail to recognize that candidates are unlikely to discuss topics unfavorable to them. Thus, the absence of a positive statement is generally not recognized as a signal that the topic is one on which the candidate may be vulnerable. Third, fact that the topics of attack ads affect voters much beyond the simple fact that the ads talk about the opponent. Furthermore, much of the variation in vote intent among the attack ads can be attributed to variations in believability, more so than emotional response, and instead of assessments of appropriateness. (pages 197 - 204)

Appendix A: Details of Video Ads Used in Study 4

Appendix B: Appendix to Chapter 5