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A book on negative political advertising co-authored by Dr. Stephen D. Ansolabehere, assistant professor of political science, is receiving widespread attention as political campaigning heats up for the November elections.
The central finding of Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the Electorate (The Free Press, New York), is that negative ads have little effect on partisan voters but are a huge turn-off to independent voters, driving them away from the ballot box.
Based on surveys and experiments involving California voters, using ads from the 1990 and 1992 gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns, Professor Ansolabehere and his co-author, Professor Shanto Iyengar of the University of California at Los Angeles, write:
"Among partisans (Republicans and Democrats alike), the drop in turnout produced by negative advertising was three percentage points. Among nonpartisans, the decline was an astounding 11 points.
"Our findings show that negative advertising demoralizes the electorate. It eats away at the individual's sense of civic duty, especially in those people whose connection to the political process is marginal. In the long run, negative campaigns contribute to the general antipathy toward politicians and parties and the high rates of disapproval and distrust of political institutions."
Even newspaper critiques of campaign ads tend to be counterproductive, the authors found, reinforcing the negative message for partisan voters while adding to disenchantment with the political process among independents.
And what are the chances of getting politicians to "stay positive?" Virtually none at all, the authors say, because damage is heaviest for a candidate who stays positive while his opponent is attacking.
Thus, the authors conclude, it is the voice of an increasingly small and increasingly polarized voting public that is shaping today's government, not the voice of the majority. And until some type of reform is implemented, America will be held hostage by this minority electorate.
David S. Broder, the nationally syndicated political columnist, gave high praise to the book and particularly the authors' recommendations for changing "the dynamic that is driving away the moderate middle of the electorate and increasing the influence of the partisan extremes.
"The authors endorse an approach I have long championed," he writes. "Increase the roles of our two parties in elections, especially their grass-roots activities. Media campaigns aim to persuade, and negative ads do that efficiently. But party organizations try to mobilize voters, because [as the authors write] `a party-centered campaign must sell the entire ticket, not just a particular name.'
"Stop the wrongheaded reform effort to curb or eliminate the. contributions that pay for party registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, they urge. Give public subsidies to the parties, not to individual presidential candidates."
The book, Professor Ansolabehere's second, has been reviewed in The New York Times Book Review and is scheduled for review in The New Yorker magazine. Professor Ansolabehere also has made appearances on radio and television talk shows.
Professor Ansolabehere's first book, also co-authored with Professor Iyengar, was The Media Game: American Politics in the Age of Television (Macmillan, 1992). It is about the relationship between journalists and politicians.
Professor Ansolabehere taught at UCLA from 1989 to 1992. He was a National Fellow at the Hoover Institute in 1993 before coming to MIT that year. He received both the BA and BS degrees from the University of Minnesota in political science and economics in 1984, and the PhD in political science from Harvard University in 1989.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 24, 1996.