12/09/2010 02:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Negativity and Partisan (De)Mobilization in the 2010 Midterms

As this year's midterm campaign was ending, a political advertising analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project found that 2010 was the most negative election in recent history. Not surprisingly, survey results from the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College and Indiana University -- Purdue University Fort Wayne fielded by SurveyUSA showed the public largely agreed that it was the most negatively toned campaign ever. The negativity did not have a uniform effect on the electorate, however. Instead, the negative tone clearly aided Republican mobilization, while demobilizing Democrats and many Independents. Rather than simply quenching a thirst for negativity, the campaign tone resonated with Republicans who wanted candidates to stand firm on principles. At the same time, negativity did not convey a willingness to compromise, which is what Democratic voters wanted out of their candidates.

Very few subjects stir interest like negative campaigns; voters dislike them; political consultants adore them; and political scientists scrutinize them. When one considers the role of negative campaigning in the American political system, two somewhat contradictory points become evident: First, campaign attacks have been with us for a long time. Some nineteenth-century presidential election dirty tricks could put recent ones to shame: Thomas Jefferson, for example, was called an amoral atheist and an adulterer; Andrew Jackson was accused of murder and bigamy; and Grover Cleveland was tarred as having fathered a child out of wedlock. There have been some dramatic changes in the delivery of these messages, especially since the advent of television, but for the most part smearing your opponent is an old tune in our electoral system.

Second, scholarly conclusions about the effects of negativity in campaigns have been mixed. Specifically, researchers have studied the effects of negativity on the attitudes of voters toward the candidates and their vote choice, on public feelings of civic duty and trust in government, and most recently on citizens' political participation. In each of these areas, the research has been sound but conclusions have conflicted.

One explanation for the lack of consensus on each of these issues might be the complexity of the phenomenon itself. Studies can follow the general mix of advertisements that voters see, but other sources of negativity exist as well. Negativity can come from the media coverage of events, the tenor taken by candidates in press conferences and debates, and the flavor of unmediated personal political discussion, which could all blend together. Further, minority partisans may embrace aggressive challenges to the status-quo. An individual's assessment of a campaign's "tone" is likely quite subjective and may differ further based on local electoral culture. A voter in New Jersey might have a different take on what a negative tone is than a voter from, say, Utah.

Consequently, to account for respondents' subjective assessment of the tone of this year's campaign, our surveys tapped voters' views on political civility, campaign tone, and political attitudes in April following passage of health care legislation, again in mid-September, and finally in the four days prior to election day. Sixty-three percent of American voters thought politics has become less civil since Barack Obama became president, up from fifty-eight percent in September and forty-eight percent in April, though Americans differ on who to blame. Beyond general political incivility, the public assessment of the campaign was brutal too.

Forty-six percent of voters thought this year's campaign was the most negative they had ever seen and twenty-six percent more said it was more negative than in the past though they'd seen worse. This difference was not terribly large between the two parties (50% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans thought it was the most negative ever). While Republicans and Democrats believed this campaign season has been negative, the effects of this negativity on Republicans' and Democrats' interest in getting involved in the election differed substantially, as demonstrated in Table 1.

More than half of Republicans who saw this campaign as the most negative ever said that the tone itself actually made them more interested in getting involved. Meanwhile, four-in-ten Democrats and nearly half of Independents said the negative tone made them less likely to participate. The negative tone of the campaign had an enormous favorable cumulative effect for Republicans relative to Democrats on voter mobilization.

The Tea Party movement likely aided this disparity but does not fully explain it. On the same measure as Table 1, almost sixty percent of Tea Party identifiers said they were more interested due to the negative tone. The marginal spread between Republicans and Tea Party identifiers is likely due to the enormous cross-over between the two. Seventy-one percent of Republicans identified with the Tea Party and seventy-eight percent of Tea Party identifiers were Republican. Only seven people in our sample of 1,252 voters were Democrats who identified with the Tea Party, thought this was the most negative campaign ever, and said it made them more interested in participating. So mobilization from the negative campaign tone affected those identifying with both the Tea Party and the Republican Party rather than being caused by the Tea Party.

The explanation for why certain people were mobilized by negativity is complex. Neither side believed that the negative tone was good. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats and seventy-two percent of Republicans thought the tone was bad for American democracy, and even sixty-nine percent of those Republicans mobilized by the negativity said the negative tone that they reported as mobilizing them was not good for American democracy. Further, Americans are not resigned to the fact that campaigns have to be negative. Ninety percent of voters said it is possible for candidates to run aggressive but respectful campaigns, including eighty-seven percent of Democrats and ninety-three percent of Republicans.

So what explains the difference in mobilization if both parties' supporters generally believe such a tone is bad for democracy and such negativity is not required? The real difference comes in Table 2. Here we split out each partisan group by what characteristics they found most important in politicians. People were asked whether they thought it was more important for politicians to compromise in order to get things done or to stand firm in support of principles. The party differences were significant. First, by the numbers in each category, it is clear that more Democrats (75%) wanted politicians who compromise, while seventy percent of Republicans wanted politicians who stand firm on principle.

Second, when it came to being mobilized by the negative tone of the campaign, there was little difference between the numbers of compromise-oriented verses standing firm-oriented Democrats mobilized by the tone (though more standing firm-oriented Democrats became less interested in participating with the negativity). On the other hand, nearly six-in-ten Republicans who favored politicians standing firm on principle were mobilized by the negativity, considerably higher than any other group and the vast majority of Republicans.

Democrats, already dealing with the normal surge and decline features of midterm elections, more often favored the principle of compromise in politics. With candidates going negative, they probably did not see compromise on display and were ambivalent about participating. For Republicans, the negativity probably mobilized them because a majority sought politicians who would stand firm on principle, which likely brought with it an acceptance for a particularly aggressive political fight. One cannot say that this is strictly related to partisan beliefs and probably comes from being locked out-of-power in the minority, while majority partisans are willing to compromise to move agendas forward. Put a bit differently, we believe it quite likely that this sort of phenomenon, where the out-of-power partisans are mobilized by attack ads, helped push Democrats to the polls in 2006. That year Democrats were probably in no mood to compromise and preferred politicians with principled stands against the Iraq War and aggressive opposition to the Bush administration. We cannot say for sure, lacking relevant 2006 data.

As noted above, there has been a great deal of variance in scholarly studies of the unintended consequences of negative ads. Perhaps this small bit of research aids our understanding that the effect of negativity on participation likely hinges on very subjective political considerations by voters that are conditioned by particular electoral situations and influenced by voters' political and cultural contexts. So the textbook campaign necessity of Democrats and Republicans to go negative did not bring equal benefits to both parties. The net effect of the cantankerous 2010 campaign was a buoying of Republican participation compared to Democrats, but that does not imply a similar campaign will do the same given in different electoral contexts in years ahead

About the Poll: This recent wave of polling for Allegheny and IPFW was conducted by SurveyUSA between Oct. 28 and Nov. 1, 2010. In all, 1,252 registered voters were contacted, yielding a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent. This poll was conducted by telephone in the voice of a professional announcer. Respondent households were selected at random, using Random Digit Dialed (RDD) sample provided by Survey Sampling, of Fairfield CT. All respondents heard the questions asked identically. The pollster's report includes the geography that was surveyed; the date(s) interviews were conducted, the number of respondents who answered each question and the theoretical margin of sampling error for each question. Where necessary, respondents were weighted using the most recent US Census estimates for age, gender, ethnic origin and region, to align the sample to the population. In theory, one can say with 95% certainty that the results would not vary by more than the stated margin of sampling