Does Negative Campaigning Work? Findings from Recent Research

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Personal attacks have become increasingly sharp in the U. S. presidential election. The McCain campaign has even reportedly decided to make character attacks on Senator Obama a primary strategy. Just recently, Telegraph reported,

A former McCain strategist familiar with the senator’s tactical discussions told The Sunday Telegraph that he would pursue the “nuclear option” targeting Mr Obama personally in the final month leading up to November’s vote.

This strategic turn has resulted in Governor Sarah Palin making a big fuss about Senator Obama’s casual encounters with former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. In response, Senator Obama’s campaign has been reminding Americans about Senator McCain’s participation in the Keating Five scandal. Certainly, the punch-counterpunch will continue as we approach the election, but does negative campaigning like this work?

It depends. Sometimes, negative campaigning works effectively, particularly when the allegations are largely true. But other times, the attacks can make the attacker seem petty and weak. For example, during last night’s second presidential debate, voter’s reactions to both candidates dipped when the candidate made an attack.

Nearly every time one candidate threw a jab at the other, the voter reaction dipped measurably.

The dips were minor for small digs but slipped further if a candidate continued criticizing his opponent.

SenseUs, a firm that does polling about emotional reactions, recently did study of two anti-Obama ads and two anti-McCain ads. They found that,

Of the four negative ads (two Anti-McCain and two Anti-Obama) examined, the only one to significantly better the standing of the sponsor was an Obama ad which challenged and disproved McCain’s assessment that the country is better off than it was eight years ago.

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