Rethinking the Concept of Negativity: An Empirical Approach

Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-180fmzBS9MlUrs/input 706547PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917706547Political Research QuarterlyLipsitz and Geer
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(3) 577 –589
Rethinking the Concept of Negativity:
© 2017 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
An Empirical Approach
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917706547
Keena Lipsitz1,2 and John G. Geer3
Over the last twenty years, there has been a tremendous amount written on “negativity” in political campaigns.
Yet, there is a conceptual disconnect between the definition of negativity used by researchers and how citizens
define negativity. In this article, we show how large this disparity is and what its consequences are. Using a nationally
representative online survey of 17,400 Americans and nearly 100 scholars of American politics who viewed presidential
ads from the 2012 general election, we show that citizen perceptions of negativity are much stronger predictors of
political participation than scholar codings of negativity. This means researchers need to give serious thought to
how they operationalize negativity in their work. If we have any interest in understanding how voters are affected
by campaign information that they perceive as being negative, then we must collect data consistent with the public’s
understanding of negativity. Otherwise, we risk the continuation of this conceptual disconnect.
American politics, elections and voting behavior, media and communications, political advertising, public opinion
One of the clear trends in American politics over the last
argue that researchers need to think carefully about how
five decades has been the rise of negative advertising. In
they conceptualize negativity. If they want to know how
1968, less than 25 percent of presidential advertising was
the criticisms leveled by candidates against one another
negative. Since then, the proportion of pure attack ads has
in campaigns affect voters, they can use the directional
increased, with 2012 and 2016 being the most negative
definition that is now widely used in the field. But if we
on record at 63 and 55 percent, respectively (Franklin
want to understand how voters are affected by campaign
Fowler et al. 2016, 458). The rising tide of negative ads
information that they perceive as being unfair—which is
has been amplified by the news media’s growing cover-
how many citizens define “negative”—then we should
age of these spots (Geer 2012).
collect data on citizens’ perceptions of campaigns.
This increasing attention from the press comes on the
heels of more than two decades of interest in negativity
from scholars.1 Much of that research has concluded that
campaign negativity has an effect on democracy that
The initial impetus for scholars studying negativity in the
ranges from benign to salutary. But much of this work
1990s was the hand-wringing among citizens, journalists,
rests on a conception of negativity that only partly resem-
and politicians about the increasingly harsh tone of our
bles how it is conceived by journalists and citizens. In
elections. As Geer (2006, 2) argued, “. . .Worries about
this article, we show just how wide this gap is by compar-
negativity lie at the very center of concerns about the
ing how citizens and scholars evaluate twenty-eight dif-
health of our electoral system and whether that system
ferent political advertisements aired during the 2012
promotes a process that can be thought of as democratic.”
presidential general election campaign. We identify two
Is negativity misleading? Does it suppress voter engage-
sources of this disparity, namely, partisan allegiances and
ment and participation? Does it really weaken the very
the fact that the perceived fairness and truthfulness of an
ad drives citizen perceptions of negativity. We conclude
by showing that the slippage between scholar and citizen
Queens College, Flushing, NY, USA
2The Graduate Center, New York, NY, USA
definitions of negativity has consequences for our under-
3Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA
standing of how it affects citizen participation in elec-
tions. Specifically, citizen perceptions of negativity are
Corresponding Author:
Keena Lipsitz, Department of Political Science, Queens College, 200
far more consequential for their decision to vote than
Powdermaker Hall, 65-30 Kissena Blvd., Queens, NY 11367, USA.
scholar negativity codings. Based on these findings, we

Political Research Quarterly 70(3)
fabric of democracy? Such questions spawned an entire
In addition, there is disagreement in the field about
literature assessing the consequences of the increasing
how to move the study of campaign advertising forward.
negativity in American elections.
While some have advocated incorporating citizen percep-
Despite all of this attention to the topic, scholars, jour-
tions of negativity into our studies (Mattes and Redlawsk
nalists, and citizens do not agree on what constitutes nega-
2015; Sigelman and Kugler 2003), others have suggested
tive advertising or behavior. In the last decade, scholars
moving away from “negativity” altogether toward alter-
appear to have settled on a definition of negativity that is
native dimensions of evaluation, such as fairness and
purely “directional”: an ad or statement is negative if it
truthfulness (Allen and Stevens 2010; Jamieson et al.
criticizes the opposing candidate. But, as Kyle Mattes and
2000; Nugent 1987; Richardson 2001). This shift has not
David Redlawsk (2015, 67) have pointed out, this defini-
only been suggested by researchers but is implicit in the
tion is different from how “everyone else in the political
work of watchdog groups such as,
world” defines campaign negativity because it does not
PolitiFact, and The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker”
contain a value judgment. As used in everyday language,
column. The problem is no one has demonstrated that
the word “negative” does convey a value judgment. This
such measures are in fact stronger predictors of citizen
would not matter if the rest of the world ignored political
evaluations of negativity or any other dependent vari-
scientists, but they do not, and political scientists have
ables we care about, such as political engagement or par-
been working very hard of late—for instance, by creating
ticipation. This study will show how wide the conceptual
blogs like The Monkey Cage—to make sure their work
disparities are and then use that information to rethink our
gets noticed. As a result, when political scientists report
approach to studying campaign negativity. In so doing,
that a majority of the ads in an election are negative, citi-
our results underscore that scholars should be wary of
zens hear, “A majority of the ads in the election are harmful
getting into the business of judging the truthfulness and
or bad.” Even journalists confuse harmful and negative as
fairness of ads.
this quote from a Los Angeles Times article illustrates,
How Citizens View Advertising Negativity
And it’s nasty this year—even nastier than usual. The
nonpartisan Wesleyan Media Project analyzed thousands of
Despite much hand-wringing in the popular press about
Senate commercials across the country last month and found
campaign negativity, studies have found that citizens
that 74 percent included negative information about one of
have a more nuanced attitude toward it than conventional
the candidates, a higher number than the same research
wisdom would suggest. In general, voters are evenly split
group found in either 2010 or 2012. (McManus 2014)
when they are asked about whether it is appropriate for
candidates to criticize their opponents, with political
In this quote, the journalist equates negative with nasty.
sophisticates being more likely to tolerate such behavior
His readers are likely to do the same.
(Freedman, Wood, and Lawton 1999; Lipsitz et al. 2005).
Our study seeks to shed light on these concepts and
Several studies have attempted to probe deeper into what
how we measure them. This is particularly important
kinds of charges are deemed “fairer” by citizens. One
given the tendency of pundits and observers to make
found that voters viewed policy relevant charges to be
hasty claims about whether an ad is or is not negative. As
fairer than charges involving personal behavior or family
Darrell West (2010, 65) rightly commented, “(c)ritics
members (Freedman, Wood, and Lawton 1999). Building
have widely condemned the advertising style in recent
on this work, another study asked how motivated reason-
elections, but few have defined what they mean by nega-
ing affects evaluations of fairness by attributing various
tivity. Observers often define negativity as anything they
criticisms to George W. Bush and Al Gore (Stevens et al.
do not like about campaigns.”2 Politicians in particular
2008). The authors conclude, “Partisans apply generous
have an incentive to obscure what constitutes “negative,”
bounds of fairness to charges from their own candidate
because they do not want to be tarred by the label of being
but are highly sensitive to criticism leveled at their candi-
a negative campaigner. So, Mary Matalin argued in 2004
date” (Stevens et al. 2008, 528).
that two Bush attack ads, which questioned Senator

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