Survey on Campaign Conduct

Study Shows Voters Reject Unfair Campaign Attack Advertisements

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.

Voters 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:

  • Voters 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.
  • Given any initial charge, a candidate will do best by staying above the fray and not responding directly.
  • An exchange of unfair charges makes it more likely that voters say they will stay home on Election Day.

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The goal of the first survey, conducted October 1998 (N=634, margin of error +/-3.9%), was to ascertain what kinds of criticisms about one's 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 as "fair").

In the second survey, conducted March-April 1999 (N=603, margin of error +/-4.0%) 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 candidate's party or policy preferences was provided. The results show that candidates pay a clear price for going negative with unfair charges.

  • The 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
  • The 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).
  • A reacting candidate's 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 A's charge. Second to not responding, the reactor's preferred strategies are to counter with a fair or moderate response.
  • An 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.

These 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 candidate's electoral chances and may decrease turnout significantly."

In 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 conduct—even though they agreed with that candidate on policy issues. Sixteen per cent say they have sat out an election because of campaign behavior.

An 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.

According 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."

The 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 advertising."

"The 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."

More information can be obtained from:

  • Bill Wood, Executive Director of the Sorensen Institute: (804) 982-5698; whw9q@virginia.edu
  • Dale Lawton, Assistant Director, Project on Campaign Conduct: (804) 982-4998; lawton@virginia.edu
  • Prof. Paul Freedman, Study Director, Survey on Campaign Conduct: (804) 924-1372; freedman@virginia.edu

Survey 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 of Virginia.

Survey 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.

This 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 Trusts:

    The 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.

    The Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, the survey's sponsor, is part of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.. The Sorensen Institute's 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.

    The 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.