Reexamining the Effects of Electoral Competition on Negative Advertising

Published date01 January 2022
Date01 January 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 50(1) 45 –51
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211042001
Researchers have long studied how negative campaigning—
that is, campaign messages in which one candidate criticizes
another—affects political cognitions and behavior (Lau &
Rovner, 2009; Lau et al., 2007). Less attention has been
given to the decision to go negative, but some prior research
suggests that some characteristics of campaigns like elec-
toral competition can encourage candidates to use more neg-
ative campaign strategies (Kahn & Kenney, 2004; Lau &
Redlawsk, 2001). Druckman et al. (2010) further examine
how incumbency status conditions the effects of competition
on negative campaign advertising, but do not observe any
differences in the way that incumbents, challengers, and
open seat candidates respond to competition. Why might
candidates be more open to engaging in negative campaign-
ing when contests are more competitive?
Competition encourages citizens to use considerations
beyond incumbency status (Kahn & Patrick, 1999) when
deciding whom to support. This gives candidates—espe-
cially incumbents—an incentive to criticize their opponents.
Negative messages are more memorable than others (Brians
& Wattenberg, 1996) and tend to encourage people to think
about avoiding costs (Lau, 1982, 1985). Negativity appears
to convey more information to citizens than do non-negative
messages (Freedman et al., 2004). Candidates may also feel
compelled to defend themselves against the attacks leveled
at them by their opponents (Carsey et al., 2011), perhaps to
shore up perceived weaknesses, to reveal the weaknesses of
their opponents, or to satisfy party activists and donors.
Competition, then, pushes candidates to criticize their oppo-
nents and those criticisms then lead candidates to use more
negative messaging strategies as they respond to their oppo-
nents’ critiques.
I argue that incumbency status conditions the effects of
competition on negative advertising strategies. More specifi-
cally, the behavior of incumbents should be more powerfully
informed by competition than should the behavior of chal-
lengers and open seat contestants for at least reasons. First,
challengers and candidates contesting open seats—that is,
non-incumbent candidates—are generally less well-known
than incumbents and may need to use negative messages to
get attention from citizens (Skaperdas & Grofman, 1995;
Theilmann & Wilhite, 1998) and the news media. Second,
non-incumbents may use negativity to make it appear as if
they are engaging in debate with their opponents. Incumbents,
on the other hand, generally avoid acknowledging their
opponents unless pressured to do so by competition (Denton
et al., 2019). Thus, I expect incumbents to engage in more
negative campaigns as competition increases while non-
incumbents ought to use negative messages regardless of the
competitiveness of their contest.
In this research note, I reexamine the classic finding that
competition leads to more negative campaigns and further
observe the degree to which the effects of competitions are
conditioned by incumbency status. This is a useful exercise
1042001APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211042001American Politics ResearchBanda
1Texas Tech University, Lubbock, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kevin K. Banda, Texas Tech University, 113 Holden Hall, Boston and
Akron Streets, Lubbock, TX 79409, USA.
Reexamining the Effects of Electoral
Competition on Negative Advertising
Kevin K. Banda1
Prior research suggests that campaigns become more negative when the election environment becomes more competitive.
Much of this research suffers from data and design limitations. I replicate and extend prior analyses using a much larger
number of cases. Using advertising data drawn from 374 U.S. Senate and gubernatorial campaigns contested from 2000
through 2018, I find evidence that electoral competition encourages candidates to engage in more negative advertising
campaigns and that incumbency status conditions these effects. Incumbents of both parties use more negative messaging
strategies as competition increases. The effects of competition among challengers and open seat candidates is mixed. These
results add to what we know about campaign advertising behavior and suggest that researchers should take care to avoid
ignoring important contextual factors that underlie candidates’ strategic choices.
negative advertising, campaigns, campaign messaging

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