Few things are guaranteed in political campaigns aside from the fact that there will be a winner, there will be a loser, and there will be a slew of negative campaign ads. Of course, many voters say that they don’t endorse “mudslinging,” as the practice is euphemistically known, but campaign ads that emphasize the weaknesses or outright attack a particular candidate or policy are remarkably common during election season. In fact, 76% of all television campaign ads from the 2016 general election—specifically the presidential race—were negative ads that attacked a candidate’s character.
Despite the ubiquity of campaign ads, there is little consensus on why or how they manage to influence voters. Some experts believe that a proliferation of negative ads can cause voters to become more pessimistic about both candidates that they don’t vote at all, which would imply that negative ads depress voter turnout rather than persuading candidates to vote for a certain candidate over the other. By contrast, others believe that negative ads can push voters to head to the polls by making them scared enough to vote against the candidate on the receiving end of all the negative ads.
Yet another school of thought suggests that negative ads are most effective in the early stages of a campaign when candidates have still not defined themselves to the voters. At this point, a negative ad can create an association between one candidate as immoral, untrustworthy, or incompetent, and that first impression can taint voters’ perceptions of said candidate for the duration of the election cycle (or, in some cases, even longer).
Even with the potential advantages of running a negative ad, they can backfire and do tremendous damage to the candidate who put forth the ad instead of the candidate targeted by it. For example, if a candidate tries to smear their opponent using a negative ad, the voters may feel solidarity with the candidate under fire and subsequently resent the candidate who created the ad, seeing him or her as duplicitous and underhanded. Additionally, even when negative ads are effective, they don’t necessarily convince the public to vote for you—they just convince them not to vote for your opponent—so you will still need to energize your supporters enough to go to the polls even in spite of successful negative campaigning.
When it comes to the final verdict on the use of negative ads in political campaigns, in the minds of many experts, the jury is still out. For some, they are an effective way to identify and differentiate between candidates; for others, negative ads only serve to undermine public faith in our officials and depress voter turnout. One thing that’s not up for debate, however, is the popularity of negative ands, and for better or for worse, it looks like they’re here to stay.