By Kathleen Riley
This past Wednesday marks the beginning of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Fall Break. I decided to come home to Nashville, TN, for a little rest and relaxation. This of course includes watching television. After watching a couple shows, I noticed something different about the commercials, particularly the lack of political ads on television. In Chapel Hill, I see a political ad at least once every thirty minutes. Not surprisingly, a lot of these ads are negative. For example, both Romney and Obama have created negative ads about the other’s inability to stand up to China. Professor Travis Ridout of Washington State University says this is because of ad targeting. Campaigns spend more on running campaigns in battleground states like North Carolina than they do in states where the race is not close, like in Tennessee.
A recent poll conducted in conjunction with the Journalism and Mass Communications School at the UNC and High Point University asked North Carolinians about negative ads. Fifty-three percent of the participants reported the ads were as negative this election as they were four years ago while 41 percent people thought they were more negative. Neither candidate seems overwhelming more negative with only one percent separating the two. The margin of error for the poll was four percentage points.
A whopping eighty percent of respondents agreed negative campaigns are harmful for the country, and there may be truth to it. Many political scientists agree with them. Richard L. Lau, Lee Sigelman and Ivy Brown Rovner reassert the conventional wisdoms about negative advertising and the effect on the electorate in an article in The Journal of Politics. The article states that, “Negative campaigning has the potential to do damage to the political system itself, as it tends to reduce feelings of political efficacy, trust in government, and perhaps even satisfaction with government itself.” They go on to question the effectiveness of negative campaigns. According to their researching, they found that the ads do not significantly bolster the attacker’s reputation, nor do they shift votes toward the candidate who creates them.
John G. Geer of Vanderbilt University thinks differently. Geer wrote a book, In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns, defending attacks ads and their potential positive effect on the electoral system. Mark Brewer summarizes Geer’s main points. Geer believes that “negativity is good for democracy” because it provides more information for the public. In his findings, Geer discovered that negative ads provide evidence for their claims while a very small amount of positive ads do the same. He also found that negative ads discuss more issues than positive ones. Negative ads differentiates between the two candidates more than positive ads do. Unfortunately, however, neither positive nor negative ads provide as much of a distinction as voters would like.
In another article, Geer measures the effect of uncivil ads on the nation and compares them to negative and positive ads. Uncivil ads are ones that go beyond just pointing out the weaknesses of another opponent. Instead they cross over from simple negativity to incivility. Geer tested the effect of messages in three different dimensions: tone, civility and focus. Voters view uncivil ads as the least valued form of advertisement, but Geer did not find a relationship between message type and political trust or political efficacy. There wasn’t a relationship between campaign tone and message recall in his study either. On the contrary, Geer finds that incivility and negative ads have the capability to generate interest in the election and increase the likelihood to vote. Geer believes that America is a “polarizing place” and is no stranger to conflict. The public will not fade in response to candidate confrontation or uncivil exchanges between candidates.