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The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning

Turn on the television or sign in to social media during election season and chances are you’ll see plenty of negative campaigning. For decades, conventional wisdom has held that Americans hate negativity in political advertising, and some have even argued that its pervasiveness in recent seasons has helped to drive down voter turnout. Arguing against this commonly held view, Kyle Mattes and David P. Redlawsk show not only that some negativity is accepted by voters as part of the political process, but that negative advertising is necessary to convey valuable information that would not otherwise be revealed.

The most comprehensive treatment of negative campaigning to date, The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning uses models, surveys, and experiments to show that much of the seeming dislike of negative campaigning can be explained by the way survey questions have been worded. By failing to distinguish between baseless and credible attacks, surveys fail to capture differences in voters’ receptivity. Voters’ responses, the authors argue, vary greatly and can be better explained by the content and believability of the ads than by whether the ads are negative. Mattes and Redlawsk continue on to establish how voters make use of negative information and why it is necessary. Many voters are politically naïve and unlikely to make inferences about candidates’ positions or traits, so the ability of candidates to go on the attack and focus explicitly on information that would not otherwise be available is crucial to voter education.

See the web appendixes referenced in the book.

256 pages | 16 figures, 45 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Media Studies

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Political Behavior and Public Opinion


“As America continues to polarize, the frequency of attacks in campaigns will only increase. Despite evidence showing that negativity has many payoffs, there is still substantial doubt about such claims. This book enters that breach with a timely array of data and theory that should find many interested readers.”

John G. Geer, Vanderbilt University

“Much ink has been spilled to investigate the effects of negativity in politics, but our understanding of this topic remains speculative at best. Readers who are serious about cracking this nut must read this book. Mattes and Redlawsk reconceptualize the concept of negativity in political campaigns, showing that it is not merely instances of one candidate talking about an opponent—as most studies consider it to be—but a far more complicated and multidimensional concept that must take into account substantive content. Readers are guaranteed to experience an ‘ah-ha!’ moment at least a few times.”

Costas Panagopoulos, Fordham University

“There’s no question that a negative association with politics exists in the United States and other nations. Yet, the waves of negativity many people claim to dislike in campaigning may not be as vilified as we’ve been led to believe. Mattes and Redlawsk’s new book attempts to shift academic research and popular thinking on this important subject.”

Washington Times

“The campaign ads from 2012 were more negative than the ads in 2008, 2008’s were more negative than 2004’s and, you guessed it, 2004’s more negative than 2000’s. But far from disparaging the form, . . . I celebrate it. Negative campaigning is a genuine positive for democracy. I come to my understanding from paging through a new book, The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning, by Kyle Mattes and David P. Redlawsk.”


“What is the appropriate response to the coming deluge of negativity? Mattes and Redlawsk make a convincing case that the most appropriate response is ‘so what?’ . . .  The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning is both engaging and important. In casting a more nuanced lens on one of the most maligned forms of political communication, this book should lead scholars to new agendas and research questions.”

Public Opinion Quarterly

“Students of campaigns and elections will find this book informative, and practitioners will benefit from the many examples that support the sophisticated political science. . . . Recommended.”


The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning is a useful and needed reminder not to slide into the habit of bemoaning negative campaigning. It is a trap that is easy to fall into, especially given media narratives about negative campaigns. But Mattes and Redlawsk examine the topic with fresh eyes, pointing out that it is as easy to lie about oneself in a positive ad as it is to lie about an opponent in a negative ad. At the same time, the book is a useful reminder that voters are more competent than we sometimes may believe.”

Congress and the Presidency

Table of Contents

Chapter 1        Introduction               
Chapter 2        Voters and Negativity, and Why the Media Can’t Help       
with Stefan Mancevski
Chapter 3        What Do Voters Think? Social Desirability and Attitudes about Negativity           
Chapter 4        Examining Voter Response to Real Campaign Ads  
Chapter 5        Modeling Negativity  
Chapter 6        That Ad Said What? The Importance of Ad Credibility       
Chapter 7        How the Possibility of Lies Damages Voter Confidence in Negativity        
Chapter 8        Conclusion     
Appendix A: Details of Video Ads Used in Study 4           
Appendix B: Appendix to Chapter 5

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