Is Negative Campaigning a Matter of Taste? Political Attacks, Incivility, and the Moderating Role of Individual Differences

Date01 May 2021
Published date01 May 2021
Subject MatterArticles
965548APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20965548American Politics ResearchNai and Maier
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(3) 269 –281
Is Negative Campaigning a Matter of
© The Author(s) 2020
Taste? Political Attacks, Incivility, and the
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20965548
Moderating Role of Individual Differences
Alessandro Nai1 and Jürgen Maier2
We test how individual differences moderate the attitudinal effects of attack politics in two online experiments among US
respondents, surveyed through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (N = 1,408 and N = 1,081). Study 1 tests the moderating effect of
personality traits (Big Five, Dark Triad) on the effectiveness of character vs. policy attacks. Study 2 investigates the difference
between civil and uncivil attacks and explores the moderating effect of Big Five, Dark Triad, tolerance to negativity and
conflict avoidance. Results suggest that the effects of negativity and incivility are not uniform across all respondents. For
instance, evaluations of the sponsor are more negative after exposure to negative messages for respondents high in conflict
avoidance; respondents high in psychopathy are more likely to have a more negative opinion of the target after being exposed
to character attacks, whereas incivility worsen the perception of the target for individuals low in conflict avoidance and
agreeableness. Harsher campaigns, in other terms, work particularly well for some – and are particularly rejected by others.
The implications of these trends are discussed.
Negativity, personality, Big Five, Dark Triad, tolerance to negativity, conflict avoidance, experiment, USA
These differences notwithstanding, negativity and incivility
are in the eye of the beholder (Lipsitz & Geer, 2017; Sigelman
Negative Campaigning is a Matter of Taste
& Kugler, 2003), so much so that different individuals might
Negative campaigning is undoubtedly one of the most dis-
react differently to them. Beyond established factors such as,
tinctive features of contemporary electoral competition. Yet,
for example, individual resources (e.g., Fridkin & Kenney,
scholars disagree about its effectiveness (Lau et al., 2007).
2004) or party identification (Ansolabehere & Iyengar,
Are negative messages successful in degrading perceptions
1995), recent research claims that the effects of attacks
of the target of the attacks, or do they instead “backlash”
depend on voters’ personality and their attitudes towards
against the sponsor (Fridkin & Kenney, 2004)? To be sure,
political discourse (Fridkin & Kenney, 2011, 2019), in line
negative messages come in many shapes and forms. For
with the broader research highlighting the centrality of “neg-
instance, several studies distinguish between different foci,
ativity bias” in information selection (e.g., Bachleda et al.,
that is, whether attacks are targeted against the policy or the
2020). Weinschenk and Panagopoulos (2014) show that
personal characteristics of the opponent (Brooks & Geer,
respondents high in extraversion are more likely to be mobi-
2007; see also Hopmann et al., 2018), or consider varying
lized by negative campaign messages; inversely, respondents
degrees of (in)civility, that is, whether the attack includes
high in agreeableness can be discouraged to participate when
“disrespectful, poisonous and hyperbolic [. . . language],
exposed to negativity. In a study by Kalmoe (2019) the usage
breaking norms of conversation” (Otto et al., 2019, p. 89; see
of “aggressive metaphors” tend to mobilize voters with
also Mutz, 2015; Mutz & Reeves, 2005). If political attacks
“aggressive traits” (associated with low agreeableness and
are broadly disliked by the public at large (Fridkin & Kenney,
extraversion, and high neuroticism) and demobilizes strong
2011; Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1989), some attacks are
particularly loathed. While criticizing the policy stances of
1University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
opponents is the heartbeat of democracy, one could argue
2University of Koblenz Landau - Campus Landau, Landau, Rheinland-Pfalz,
that ad-hominem attacks and invectives against personal
traits of the opponents are normatively less useful from a
Corresponding Author:
democratic standpoint. Civil and nuanced criticism can fos-
Alessandro Nai, University of Amsterdam, Postbus 15793, Amsterdam
ter a relevant and reasonable debate, whereas uncivil attacks
1001 NG, Netherlands.
will most likely poison the political discourse in the long run.

American Politics Research 49(3)
partisans low in aggression. Similarly, in the study by
experiment among US respondents, surveyed through
Bjarnøe et al. (2020) political news employing a conflict
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in May 2019 and December
framing—that is, focusing on disagreements and clashes
2019 (respectively, N = 1,408 and N = 1,081). Study 1
inherent in the political game—are more successful in mobi-
focusses specifically on differences in personality traits (Big
lizing voters that score low in conflict avoidance (see also
Five, Dark Triad) and their moderating effect on the effec-
Maier & Faas, 2015). Inversely, Mutz and Reeves (2005)
tiveness of negativity and character versus policy attacks.
show that exposure to uncivil content lowers political trust
Study 2 focuses on character attacks more specifically and
especially in respondents high in conflict avoidance, Otto
investigates the difference between civility and incivility
et al. (2019) suggest that individuals with lower levels of
within this type of attacks; on top of assessing the moderat-
“tolerance to disagreement” are more affected by political
ing role of the Big Five and Dark Triad, study 2 also explores
incivility, and Fridkin and Kenney (2011, 2019) show the
the moderating effect of tolerance to negativity and conflict
same for low “tolerance to negativity.”
All in all, these diverse studies suggest that some citizens
The two studies were voluntarily set up in a way to maxi-
are more “attuned” to negativity than others—or, in other
mize their differences, while keeping the main “moving
terms, that individual differences are an important moderator
parts” stable (the logic of the experimental protocols and the
when it comes to the effects of information framed in a nega-
measurement of personality). Respondents in study 1 are
tive way (Nai & Otto, forthcoming). Yet, to the best of our
exposed to fictive messages but about real political figures
knowledge, the jury is still out regarding whether individual
(Pete Buttigieg and Mitch McConnell), whereas study 2 uses
differences have the potential to matter, in fine, for the net
fictive candidates. Study 1 involves attacks sponsored by a
effectiveness of negative political massages—that is, looking
Democrat against a Republican, whereas study 2 does the
at both voters’ perceptions of the target and the sponsor of the
opposite. Study 1 sets up the treatments as campaign speeches,
attacks. Negativity might successfully depress perceptions of
whereas study 2 frames them as mock newspaper articles.
the target, as it intends to do, but is also likely to unintendedly
Finally, the mock campaign messages in study 1 are on the
backfire against the sponsor. Can we identify voters for which
issue of health care, whereas in study 2 they are on economic
these effects are more (less) likely? Is negativity more suc-
and taxation issues. Replicating the same protocol but using
cessful for some voters to depress evaluations of the target—
very different setups dramatically decreases the chances that
those that are more positively predisposed towards more
results—if consistently found across the studies—are driven
confrontational and harsh components of the political game?
by the experimental setup at play. In other terms, such a “most
Are some voters particularly likely to reject negativity, to the
different” approach includes already in its design cues to
point of having a worse image of candidates that go negative?
assess whether the results found are externally valid (e.g.,
Given the increase of confrontational and antagonistic politi-
Schram, 2005) and, potentially, generalizable.
cal figures worldwide (Nai & Martinez i Coma, 2019), and
the fact that the personality of voters is likely to be associated
Study 1. Personality and Type of
with support for “harsher” political figures (e.g., Bakker
et al., 2016), these questions are particularly topical.
In this article, we contribute to this a better understanding
of the psychological roots of support for negativity in poli-
tics by testing the effects of personality traits and other
Study 1 focuses on individual differences in terms of person-
proximate dispositional attitudes (conflict avoidance, toler-
ality traits, looking both at the “Big Five” and “Dark Triad”
ance to negativity) on the effectiveness of negative cam-
inventories. The Big Five (McCrae & John, 1992) is undoubt-
paigning messages to shape attitudes for targets and sponsors
edly the most studied personality inventory, at least when it
of the attacks. To be sure, the contribution of this article is
comes to its effects on...

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