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Negative Campaigning Disliked by Most Americans

by Deborah Jordan Brooks, Gallup Guest Scholar

Three out of five Americans disagree with the idea that negative advertisements have a place in campaigns

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Some political observers surmise that the 2000 campaign for president may be one of the most negative presidential elections in recent history, with Al Gore and George W. Bush likely to escalate their attacks as the campaign moves towards Election Day. The latest Gallup poll, conducted July 6-9, underscores the potential risk inherent in this scenario, showing that the American public has little tolerance for negative ads, or for political ads in general. Not only does the public say they dislike seeing such ads, but they largely reject the argument that the information conveyed can be valuable for voters.

In the broadest sense, the new Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans -- 57% -- are dissatisfied with the way candidates have conducted their campaigns in recent years. One of the likely reasons for the public's dissatisfaction with recent campaign conduct is a perceived increase in the use of negative campaign tactics by candidates. In fact, over half of the public (54%) feel that campaigns have become more negative than they were in the past, while only about one out of ten feel that campaigns are less negative than they used to be. Thirty-seven percent feel that campaigns are about as negative as they have always been.

Not All Candidate Attacks Are Considered to Be "Negative"
Not only does the public dislike negative campaigning, but, in recent elections, voters have seen the perhaps ironic spectacle of candidates themselves "going negative" by criticizing their opponents for engaging in negative campaigning. What is it exactly that the public considers to be negative campaigning? The Gallup poll shows that Americans have varying opinions about the kinds of tactics they consider to be "negative."

  • More than seven in ten Americans feel that bringing up an opponent's extramarital relationships or use of illegal drugs before the person held office are examples of negative campaign tactics.
  • The public, however, is fairly evenly divided in terms of whether they think that mentioning an opponent's ties to special interest groups constitutes negative campaigning, with 42% saying that it does and 54% saying that it does not.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, only one out of five Americans consider bringing up an opponent's stands on issues like education or military spending to be negative.
  • Four-fifths of the public feel that the common tactic of criticizing an opponent for running negative advertisements is itself an example of negative campaigning.

Only Some Attacks Are Considered to Be "Unfair"
A different way to look at the types of tactics used in campaigning is to ask how "fair" it is to raise certain issues. The poll results show that, while candidates often complain that attacks by their opponents are "unfair," Americans do not consider every kind of candidate criticism to be an unfair line of attack. More than nine out of ten Americans believe that it is fair to bring up an opponent's stands on issues like education or military spending. Bringing up an opponent's ties to special interest groups is thought to be fair by three out of four people. However, a majority think several other potential topics are unfair for a candidate to bring up about an opponent, including extramarital affairs (68%), an opponent's use of negative advertisements (60%), and the use of illegal drugs before the person held office (57%).

Little Value Seen for Negative Advertisements
Candidates often defend their use of negative advertisements by claiming that they are providing important information to the public about their opponents. In general, however, a majority of the public -- 56% -- disagree that negative ads help them to learn about the candidates. Only 24% agree. The public also questions the role of negative ads in elections overall, as three-fifths of Americans disagree that negative advertisements have a place in campaigns. Importantly, many Americans also think negative advertising affects their interest in voting, with almost half of those interviewed in the poll agreeing that negative advertisements make them feel less like voting on Election Day.

No Ads Are Better Than Negative Ads
When Americans are asked to choose whether it would be better if candidates ran mostly negative advertisements or if they ran no campaign advertisements at all, a resounding 84% opt for no advertisements. Additionally, most people would prefer to see only positive advertising rather than a mix of advertising that focuses on both the positive and negative aspects of each candidate: in a choice between campaigns with equally negative and positive advertisements or only positive advertisements, two-thirds opt for only positive ads. But the value of campaign advertising in general is questioned by a majority of Americans, with 61% preferring that campaigns run few ads rather than a lot of ads.

Survey Methods
The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,001 adults, 18 years and older, conducted July 6-9, 2000. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way most candidates have conducted their campaigns in recent years?

 

 

Satisfied

Dissatisfied

No opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

39%

57

4



In recent years, do you think that political campaigns have become more negative, less negative, or are they about the same as they were in the past?

 

 

More
negative

Less
negative

About
the same

No
opinion

         

2000 Jul 6-9

54%

8

37

1



I am going to read you a list of things a candidate might bring up about an opponent. After each one, please tell me whether you think it is fair or unfairfor a candidate to bring up. How about [RANDOM ORDER]?

BASED ON -- 509 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A: ± 5 PCT. PTS.

The extramarital relationships of an opponent

 

 

Fair

Unfair

No opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

30%

68

2



An opponent's use of illegal drugs before the person held office

 

 

Fair

Unfair

No opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

41%

57

2



An opponent's ties to special interest groups

 

 

Fair

Unfair

No opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

76%

21

3



An opponent's use of negative advertisements in their campaign

 

 

Fair

Unfair

No opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

37%

60

3



An opponent's stands on issues like education or military spending

 

 

Fair

Unfair

No opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

94%

5

1



I am going to read you a list of things a candidate might bring up about an opponent. After each one, please tell me whether you think it is an example of what you would consider to be negative campaigning. How about [RANDOM ORDER]?

BASED ON -- 492 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B: ± 5 PCT. PTS.

The extramarital relationships of an opponent

 

 

Yes,
is example

No, is not an
example

No
opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

77%

21

2



An opponent's use of illegal drugs before the person held office

 

 

Yes,
is example

No, is not an
example

No
opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

72%

25

3



An opponent's ties to special interest groups

 

 

Yes,
is example

No, is not an
example

No
opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

42%

54

4



An opponent's use of negative advertisements in their campaign

 

 

Yes,
is example

No, is not an
example

No
opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

80%

17

3



An opponent's stands on issues like education or military spending

 

 

Yes,
is example

No, is not an
example

No
opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

19%

79

2



I'm going to ask you some questions about negative political advertisements and negative campaigning -- that is, when candidates focus onthe weaknesses of their opponents when campaigning for office. On a scale of 1-5 with 5 being that you strongly agree and 1 being that you strongly disagree, please tell me how much you agree with the following statements. [RANDOM ORDER]

BASED ON -- 509 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A: ± 5 PCT. PTS.

Generally speaking, negative advertisements help me to learn about the candidates.

 

 

Strongly agree
(5)



(4)



(3)



(2)

Strongly disagree
(1)


No
opinion

             

2000 Jul 6-9

14%

10

19

16

40

1



Negative advertisements have a place in campaigns.

 

 

Strongly agree
(5)



(4)



(3)



(2)

Strongly disagree
(1)


No opinion

             

2000 Jul 6-9

11%

8

20

16

44

1



Negative advertisements make me feel less like voting on Election Day.

 

 

Strongly agree
(5)



(4)



(3)



(2)

Strongly disagree
(1)


No
opinion

             

2000 Jul 6-9

37%

12

16

7

26

2



I'm going to ask you some questions about negative political advertisements and negative campaigning -- that is, when candidates focus onthe weaknesses of their opponents when campaigning for office. On a scale of 1-5 with 5 being that you strongly agree and 1 being that you strongly disagree, please tell me how much you agree with the following statements. [RANDOM ORDER]

BASED ON -- 492 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B: ± 5 PCT. PTS.

Generally speaking, negative advertisements help people to learn about the candidates.

 

 

Strongly agree
(5)



(4)



(3)



(2)

Strongly disagree
(1)


No
opinion

             

2000 Jul 6-9

12%

8

26

16

37

1



Negative advertisements have a place in campaigns.

 

 

Strongly agree
(5)



(4)



(3)



(2)

Strongly disagree
(1)


No
opinion

             

2000 Jul 6-9

12%

7

19

17

44

1



Negative advertisements make people feel less like voting on Election Day.

 

 

Strongly agree
(5)



(4)



(3)



(2)

Strongly disagree
(1)


No
opinion

             

2000 Jul 6-9

46%

14

16

10

13

1



Now, we'd like to ask you a few questions about campaign advertisements.

If you had to choose, do you think it would be better if candidates [ROTATED: (1) ran a lot of campaign advertisements, or (2) ran very few campaign advertisements]?

 

 

Ran a lot

Ran very few

No opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

37%

61

2



If you had to choose, do you think it would be better if candidates [ROTATED: (1) ran mostly negative campaign advertisements, or (2) ran no campaign advertisements at all]?

 

 


Ran mostly negative advertisements

Ran no advertisements
at all


No
opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

13%

84

3



If you had to choose, do you think it would be better if candidates [ROTATED: (1) ran campaign advertisements that were about equally negative and positive, or (2) ran only positive campaign advertisements? [ROTATED]

 

 

Ran equally
negative and positive


Ran only
positive


No
opinion

       

2000 Jul 6-9

31%

68

1



Gallup


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