THE TALK – Political advertising spending sets records in midterm elections. However, there is evidence that negative messaging could discourage voters from casting ballots altogether.
As the midterms of 2022 draw closer, political attacks in campaign ads are on the rise.
In November, Rep. Paul Gosar shared an anime cartoon video showing him physically assaulting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat, and President Joe Biden.
That same month, Rep. Ilhan Omar called fellow Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert a buffoon and a fanatic on twitter. Even the official White House Twitter account has weighed in on the divisive action, recently making headlines when in August 2022 it slammed several Republican congressmen who criticized the paycheck protection program — after they themselves had their loans forgiven.
Rude messages from politicians have become increasingly common over the past decade. Political attacks have become commonplace in an increasingly polarized political environment, encouraging voters to get angry and plan to vote before Election Day in November.
But that doesn’t mean that these types of ads and personal attacks actually work.
I study political marketing and, as a former campaign manager and political advisor, I’ve seen firsthand how politicians use rude strategies in hopes of getting elected. My research on political advertising suggests that highly polarized communications can lose their persuasive power and even backfire in the upcoming midterms, hurting a candidate’s chances.
The Impact of Political Attack Ads
My research shows that political advertising and language actually put people in a negative mood. Just asking voters to think about politics is enough to infuriate them. This negativity is amplified when an ad specifically attacks an opposing candidate.
There is also evidence that this anger carries over into voting behavior. Data from US elections from 2000 to 2012 shows that negative political television advertising makes people less likely to vote for the politician targeted, but also makes people less likely to vote in general.
However, politicians tend to use less negative, divisive advertising on social media than their advertising on television. This could be because social media attracts smaller, more targeted audiences, and perhaps candidates fear this type of tactic could demobilize supporters.
The rise of polarization
There are a few factors that explain why political campaigning and attacks on opponents have become more toxic in recent years.
First of all, voters are more emotional and angry than ever. This emotion towards politics has been linked to the normality of anger in our daily lives and increased political competition – for example close presidential elections.
Democrats and Republicans are also interacting less and less in the United States. This social polarization comes as political identity is more important to voters than ever before. Being a Democrat or a Republican is an integral part of who the voter is, shaping both their political choices — like who they vote for — and their non-political ones, such as who they vote for. B. who he hangs out with.
Given these factors, conversations about politics are increasingly taking place among people who already agree on political issues.
Politicians like former President Donald Trump and others seem to be taking advantage of the fact that they are preaching to the choir, so to speak, using increasingly polarized language to attack the other side.
Whether or not language is polarized is a subjective question, but my research and the work of others has focused on how negative a political message is and how extreme the message is.
The Declining Power of Polarized News
There are some signs that voters are tired of negative political communications flooding their screens.
Using data from the 2016 US presidential election, my collaborators and I found that political ad messages that are more polarized hurt candidates in the polls and make voters talk less about the candidate.
In particular, we find that voters prefer more centrist and consistent messages in political ads, at least in the context of the recent presidential election. This research used text analysis methods that allowed us to rank each ad based on how polarized the message was and how consistent the message was for the candidate.
Polarized messages are particularly damaging to a candidate’s election chances when they are inappropriate for the candidate—that is, for politicians who are typically moderate and then seek to go to extremes.
Looking towards the midterms of 2022
The stakes are high in the upcoming midterm elections in November 2022, with every seat in the House of Representatives and about a third of the Senate seats up for grabs. Political advertising spending is expected to hit a record $8.9 billion this mid-election season.
When the prevailing tone of these messages is toxic, political campaigns run the risk of turning off increasing numbers of voters.
My research shows that there are new consequences of polarized communication that can harm candidates in elections. These insights could encourage political campaigns to test different advertising strategies in the medium term to potentially curb negativity.
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.