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In Defense of Negativity

Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns

Americans tend to see negative campaign ads as just that: negative. Pundits, journalists, voters, and scholars frequently complain that such ads undermine elections and even democratic government itself. But John G. Geer here takes the opposite stance, arguing that when political candidates attack each other, raising doubts about each other’s views and qualifications, voters—and the democratic process—benefit. 

In Defense of Negativity, Geer’s study of negative advertising in presidential campaigns from 1960 to 2004, asserts that the proliferating attack ads are far more likely than positive ads to focus on salient political issues, rather than politicians’ personal characteristics. Accordingly, the ads enrich the democratic process, providing voters with relevant and substantial information before they head to the polls.

An important and timely contribution to American political discourse, In Defense of Negativity concludes that if we want campaigns to grapple with relevant issues and address real problems, negative ads just might be the solution.


"Geer has set out to challenge the widely held belief that attack ads and negative campaigns are destroying democracy. Quite the opposite, he argues in his provocative new book: Negativity is good for you and for the political system. . . . In Defense of Negativity adds a new argument to the debate about America’s polarized politics, and in doing so it asserts that voters are less bothered by today’s partisan climate than many believe. If there are problems -- and there are -- Geer says it’s time to stop blaming it all on 30-second spots."

Dan Balz | Washington Post

"Geer puckishly argues that negative ads are more nutritious for democracy than sunnier, Morning-in-America-style spots. . . . The point, Geer says, is that campaigns should provide information about the differences between candidates on issues, and attack ads do a good job of this."

Christopher Shea | Boston Globe

"This book is well written, well argued and logical and steers the reader to the counterintuitive conclusion that political mudslinging can be beneficial. . . . For political advertising scholars in particular, this book provides an alternative, refreshing viewpoint on the subject. Political junkies of all denominations however would also benefit from reading this insightful book."

Mark Thomas Rice | Political Studies Review

"An important book, containing a large systematic content analysis of presidential advertising over the past 12 elections. The book addresses several basic questions that have been missing in the debate about the impact of negative ads."

Nicholas A. Valentino | Public Opinion Quarterly

"This book has a great deal to recommend it for undergraduate and graduate students alike. This is what high quality social science is all about. It should become required reading for all journalists and political pundits before the next round of federal elections."

Richard R. Lau | Perspectives in Politics

"Attack advertising is good for democracy. This is the main argument of John Geer’s excellent book on negative ads in U.S. presidential elections. . . . The argument and evidence in this book should prompt critics to rethink the merits of attack ads."

Bethany L. Albertson | American Review of Politics

"This is a fine piece of scholarly workthat is readable enough for use in the undergraduate classroom and systematic enough to be taken seriously by other investigators. . . . Whatever your particular perspective on the question of negativity, there is no doubt that this book is essential reading. It is thoughtful, interesting, and full of evidence that is badly needed in this literature."

Scott D. McClurg | Journal of Politics

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. The Need for Negativity: An Introduction
2. Assessing Negativity
3. The Information Environment and Negativity
4. Evaluating Character Attacks
5. Evaluating the Content of Negative and Positive Issue Appeals
6. Dragging the Truth into the Gutter? The News Media, Negativity and the 1988 Campaign
7. Negativity, Democracy, and the Political System


Harvard University, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy: The Goldsmith Book Prize

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