Political Knowledge and Sponsorship in Backlash from Party- and Candidate-Sponsored Attacks

By Meirick, Patrick C. | Communication Reports, April-October 2005 | Go to article overview

Political Knowledge and Sponsorship in Backlash from Party- and Candidate-Sponsored Attacks


Meirick, Patrick C., Communication Reports


Apparently wary of backlash, candidates are sponsoring fewer negative ads while their party's national committees do more of the dirty work. In this experiment (N = I07), contrary to expectations, candidate evaluations were more positive when participants saw the candidates' own attacks than when they saw party-sponsored attacks. An interaction showed that this was true particularly for viewers higher in political knowledge in their overall candidate evaluations. The recent embrace of 'plain-spoken' candidates is mentioned as a possible explanation. Implications of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in light of this study are discussed.

Keywords: Negative Political Advertising; Political Knowledge; Sponsorship; Political Campaigns

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In political advertising, backlash is a well-documented phenomenon in which a political attack ad ends up lowering evaluations of the candidate who sponsored it, often as much or more than the candidate criticized in the ad (Garramone, 1984; Haddock & Zanna, 1997; Hill, 1989; Jasperson & Fan, 2002; Lau, Sigelman, Heldman, & Babbitt, 1999; Merritt, 1984; Shen & Wu, 2002).

Apparently wary of backlash, candidates in recent years have run fewer negative ads themselves and left more of the dirty work to their party's national committees or to political action committees (Stanger & Rivlin, 1998). In the 2000 US federal elections, nearly half of party ads were exclusively negative, compared to just 16% for candidate-funded ads (Holman & McLoughlin, 2002). 'Apparently, without a specific name of a person behind the ad, parties and groups feel freer to go negative and attack candidates on their merits or character' (Holman & McLoughlin, 2002, p. 66). Candidates may hope that the attacks by proxy waged by their political allies will not lead to a backlash against themselves.

Despite the fact that independent ad expenditures have overtaken candidate ad expeditures (Marcus, 2000), party-sponsored political advertising has received 'scant attention in political communication research' (Pfau, Holbert, Szabo, & Kaminski, 2002, p. 302). The topic has become particularly relevant with the ongoing legal wrangling over campaign finance reform. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (2002) set out to ban the raising and spending of 'soft money,' unregulated contributions by individuals, unions and corporations to the national party committees. A US District Court in May 2003 struck down the soft money ban but left intact a provision requiring parties to pay hard money for any television ad that refers to a specific candidate.

One rationale offered for limiting such ads is their presumed influence on voters. But that presumed influence has received little study. Likewise, there is little research on whether candidates incur less backlash from party-funded negative ads than their own. Garramone (1985) found evidence that televised attacks from independent sponsors are more successful than attacks from a candidate. However, Garramone's work came well before the explosion of issue advertising by parties and political action committees (PACs) since 1996, and her experimental stimuli made sponsor information much more prominent than it has been in recent years.

Some recent work has examined this question. Using real-world television ads for real candidates as experimental stimuli, Pfau and colleagues (2002) found no main effects for sponsor or tone. Shen and Wu (2002) found only moderate evidence of backlash upon a candidate whose opponent is attacked by an independent ad. Overall candidate perceptions and character perceptions were significantly lower for those viewing such ads than for those in a control group, but candidate liking and voting intentions were not. Shen and Wu had hypothesized no backlash because 'it is usually hard for a layperson to detect the hidden links between the political organizations and the candidates they implicitly support' (p. …

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Political Knowledge and Sponsorship in Backlash from Party- and Candidate-Sponsored Attacks
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