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How Negative Political Attacks Are Saving Democracy

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The Wisconsin election was not patty cake. Like all recall elections, this one started negative ("Fire the bum!") and just got nastier, but that negativity didn't suppress turnout. In fact, turnout in the Wisconsin recall was 56 percent, more than showed up in the regularly scheduled 2010 elections. If you like democracy, this is good news. But don't expect the myth that negative campaigns suppress voters to die in Wisconsin.

This false notion is one of the most widely held misconceptions about American politics. You see it in a Washington Post op-ed ("... studies show that negative ads can reduce turnout") and hear it on National Public Radio ("What observers have historically found is that negative campaigns suppress turnout").

Where you don't see this is in a real campaign. In my day job, I'm an opposition researcher and hardly a dispassionate observer, so don't take my word for it. Instead, read a 2007 study in the Journal of Politics by three academics -- Richard R. Lau of Rutgers University, The George Washington University's Lee Sigelman, and Ivy Brown Rovner from Rutgers University. Among their conclusions was that the demobilization hypothesis -- the fancy term for the myth of negative campaigning suppressing voters -- did not hold up to analysis. In fact, their analysis showed the opposite could be true, just like we saw in Wisconsin.

Our two most recent presidential campaigns back that up. In 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ushered in a new age of negative campaigning with their odious and inaccurate attacks on John Kerry's war record, while Democrats didn't care so much about defending their nominee as attacking George W. Bush's record -- remember "No blood for oil"? But despite an election more negative than a dysfunctional family Thanksgiving, a record 122.3 million Americans voted in 2004.

The 2008 election plays differently in our memories with the cheering crowds and possibilities of historical change, but in reality it was the most negative in U.S. history. Both Barack Obama and John McCain ran about two negative ads for every positive one. Because Obama ran many more ads than McCain, the Democrat ended up running the most negative ads ever. Despite -- or because of -- this, 130 million voters showed up at the ballot box, beating 2004's record.

Academia and anecdotal experience offer some theories about why negative campaigning gets voters out of their La-Z-Boys. The 2007 study by the three academics also found that voters recalled negative information better than positive facts because they're "sticky" (the details, not the academics) and more likely to elicit emotional reactions. And while you contemplate whether cynicism plays a role in voters being more willing to believe bad things about politicians than good things, ask yourself this: What was Bill Clinton's greatest policy achievement? And while you ponder that, tell me what tobacco product Monica Lewinsky used as a plaything and where she bought that dress. It's far easier to remember that Lewinsky got that blue dress at the Gap than to remember that Clinton presided over a lengthy economic expansion because not only are politicians human, but apparently we are as well.

Despite certain details sticking in their minds, voters are better at separating the relevant attacks from the chaff. The punditry might get its microphone cords in a twist over Monicagate and other irrelevant scandals, voters give greater weight to conflicts of interest, business records, and votes in office -- in other words, the attacks that actually have something to do with the job. The possibility that voters were punishing Republicans for pursuing an irrelevant line of attack goes a long way toward explaining why Democrats gained seats in 1998 and why Clinton ended his impeachment trial with record approval ratings.

The lesson that voters keep trying to teach us is clear: If you want to rock the vote, use sticks and stones. But no matter how many times we see this cause and effect, pundits and other party poopers hold fast to the myth that negative campaigns suppress turnout. And though the myth should have died in Wisconsin, expect to hear more gnashing of teeth about the supposed evils of negative campaigning before this election is over. But the next time a pundit tells you politics has reached a new low, now you'll know better.

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