Shows Voters Reject Unfair Campaign Attack Advertisements
6, 1999 -- Virginia voters have clear views on what
is and what is not a fair campaign advertisement, and are prepared
to punish candidates who make unfair charges, according to a new
study conducted for the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership
(SIPL) at the University of Virginia.
rated more than 3,000 hypothetical campaign attack scenarios. The
results show how the use of negative campaign ads affect voters
ratings of candidates, whom they choose to vote for, and whether
they turn out to vote at all. The consistent findings:
reward campaign practices perceived as fair, and punish candidates
for engaging in unfair attacks. No matter how an opponent responds,
a candidate will always do best by making a fair charge.
any initial charge, a candidate will do best by staying above
the fray and not responding directly.
exchange of unfair charges makes it more likely that voters say
they will stay home on Election Day.
University of Virginias Center for Survey Research conducted
two statewide surveys of Virginia registered voters for the Sorensen
Institutes Project on Campaign Conduct, with financial support
from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
goal of the first survey, conducted October 1998 (N=634, margin
of error +/-3.9%), was to ascertain what kinds of criticisms about
ones opponent were perceived by voters as fair or unfair.
The resulting ratings were used to group charges in the following
categories (percentages represent respondents who rated each charge
- Talking one way and voting
- His/her business record
- His/her voting practices
- Taking money from the special
Taking money from individuals
with ethical problems (63%)
Current personal troubles
Current extramarital affairs
Political actions of party's
Past extramarital affairs
Past personal troubles (26%)
Personal lives of party leaders
Behavior of his/her family
the second survey, conducted March-April 1999 (N=603, margin of
respondents were presented with
hypothetical campaign scenarios involving Candidate A (the
initiator), who always makes the initial charge, and Candidate
B (the reactor), who either makes a counter-charge or does not
respond. In each scenario, charge and counter-charge were randomly
selected from the criticisms listed above. In addition, some background
information about the candidates party or policy preferences
was provided. The results show that candidates pay a clear price
for going negative with unfair charges.
candidate who makes the initial charge rarely has the electoral
advantage. Candidate A is the predicted loser in 8 out of
12 types of scenarios. When Candidate A makes an unfair charge,
he or she loses every time
initiator does best when making a fair charge; the reactor does
worst when making an unfair response. Candidate A receives
the largest share of the vote when making a fair charge followed
by an unfair response by Candidate B (48% of the vote for A, 17%
for B). Conversely A gets the smallest share of the vote when
making an unfair charge met with no response (15% for Candidate
A vs. 57% for Candidate B).
reacting candidates strongest electoral strategy is not
to respond with any counter charge. No matter what
charge Candidate A has initiated, B gets a larger share of the
vote and higher overall evaluations by staying above the fray
and not responding. When A has made an unfair attack, for example,
B gets only 21 percent of the vote by responding in kind but wins
the election (with 57 percent of the vote) by not responding to
As charge. Second to not responding, the reactors
preferred strategies are to counter with a fair or moderate response.
exchange of unfair charges may suppress voter turnout. Voters
said they were most inclined to stay home when the candidates
trade unfair charges (41%). They are least likely to abstain when
Candidate A makes a fair (8%) or moderate (7%) charge that is
unanswered by B. As the unfairness of the campaign intensifies,
respondents are more likely to report they will abstain from voting.
findings come at a time when voter turnout in Virginia elections
has been declining. Dale Lawton, Assistant Director of the Project
on Campaign Conduct stated, "The results suggest that responding
in kind to negative attacks hurts a candidates electoral chances
and may decrease turnout significantly."
other major findings, voters are generally critical of campaign
quality. Almost two-thirds say that campaigns in the U.S. have gotten
worse over the last two decades (65%), as opposed to having improved
(9%) or stayed the same (26%). Almost a third of respondents (31%)
report having voted against a candidate because of poor campaign
conducteven though they agreed with that candidate on policy
issues. Sixteen per cent say they have sat out an election because
of campaign behavior.
overwhelming majority of respondents supported the idea of candidates
adopting voluntary guidelines on campaign conduct such as a code
of ethics (96% supported the idea) or limits on campaign spending
(90%). Support for laws requiring candidates to adopt a code of
ethics and limit spending was also around 90%. In contrast, only
two-thirds of voters (68%) support asking candidates to include
their own photograph in every campaign ad.
to Sorensen Institute Director Bill Wood, "This poll suggests
that the electorate has strong sentiments about attack politics.
Contrary to conventional wisdom and campaign consultants, going
negative or responding in kind might not guarantee electoral success."
study also holds important lessons for scholars of public opinion
and elections. "These findings show that researchers need to
pay greater attention to voter perceptions of campaign conduct,"
said study director Paul Freedman, assistant professor of Government
at the University of Virginia. "The ongoing controversy over
negative ads should begin to focus on questions of fairness in campaign
use of scenarios in a telephone poll is a powerful tool," observed
Prof. Thomas Guterbock, Director of the Center for Survey Research.
"We are confident that our methodology reveals the system of
informal rules that voters use to judge the actions of real candidates
in actual campaigns."
information can be obtained from:
Wood, Executive Director of the Sorensen Institute: (804) 982-5698;
Lawton, Assistant Director, Project on Campagin Conduct: (804)
Paul Freedman, Study Director, Survey on Campaign Conduct; (804)
One, a telephone survey of 634 randomly selected registered voters
throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia was conducted from October
6 through October 22, 1998. Telephone numbers were selected through
a list-assisted random-digit dialing process, so as to give equal
representation to listed and unlisted households in all regions
of the state. Within each household, one registered voter was
selected by a random procedure to be the respondent. The survey
has a margin of sampling error of 3.9 percentage points for all
respondents. In theory, in 19 cases out of 20 the results for
this sample would differ due to sampling error by no more than
3.9 percentage points in either direction from what would have
been obtained by interviewing all registered voters in the Commonwealth.
Students in two classes in the departments of Sociology and Government
and Foreign Affairs participated in planning the survey and conducting
the interviews, using the computer-assisted telephone interviewing
facilities of the Center for Survey Research at the University
Two, a telephone survey of 603 randomly selected registered voters
throughout the Commonwealth was conducted from March 26 - April
13, 1999. Telephone numbers were again selected through a list-assisted
random-digit dialing process, and within each household one registered
voter was selected by a random procedure to be the respondent.
The survey has a margin of sampling error of 3.8 percentage points
for all respondents. Interviews were conducted by professional
staff at the Center for Survey Research.
project was undertaken as part of the Project on Campaign Conduct
at the Thomas C. Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at
the University of Virginia, with support from the Pew Charitable
Center for Survey Research (CSR) at the University of Virginia
is a full-service academic survey research facility offering customized
project design, professional interviewing, data collection, data
analysis and report preparation.
Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, the surveys
sponsor, is part of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service..
The Sorensen Institutes mission is preparing emerging
leaders for entry into government service or electoral office. The
surveys are part of the Project on Campaign Conduct, which
is designed to provide training and information about all elements
of campaigning with an emphasis on leadership, sound public policy
and ethical conduct.
Pew Charitable Trusts, which made a grant in support of this
project, are among the nations largest philanthropies. The Trusts
make strategic investments to encourage civic engagement in addressing
public issues and effecting social change.
Ida Lee Wootten, (804) 924-6857.