Negative Political Advertising: A History and Analysis of its Effectiveness with a Case Study from Montana

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Devlin, Kelly
political advertising; Montana; American Politics; Other Political Science; Political Science
thesis / dissertation description
Negative, or attack, political advertisements have been a part of American politics since the country’s inception. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was essentially America’s first negative political ad. Despite experiencing a brief lull between the late 19th century and the late 1920s, negative advertising has been a constant presence in the American political system, changing according to the technological, political, and governmental modifications over time. Despite their consistency throughout U.S. history, much debate exists regarding the effectiveness of negative political advertisements. Scholars upholding the demobilization hypothesis on negative political advertising, primarily Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar, demonstrate through their research that negative advertisements cause Independent voters to abstain from voting, as they are turned away by the negativity. Conversely, these scholars note an increase in voting by strong partisan individuals. Scholars upholding the stimulation hypothesis on negative political advertising, including Steven E. Finkel and John G. Geer, have found contradictory conclusions to that of the demobilization hypothesis. Finkel and Geer provide research demonstrating that negative advertisements can actually stimulate voter turnout. Additionally, under some scenarios, Finkel and Geer showed that negative political advertisements had no effect on subsequent voter turnout. The state of Montana, no stranger from the phenomenon of negative political advertising, has experienced a number of tumultuous negative campaigns. This thesis applies a case study on the use and effectiveness of negative political advertising in Montana, focusing on the 2006 U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Conrad Bums and Democrat Jon Tester. The voter turnout was significantly high among Independents as well as partisans in the 2006 election, and negative advertisements were frequently played on Montanans’ televisions, radios, and in their local newspapers. The Montana case study demonstrates that negative advertising can result in varying effects depending on the unique political culture of a given state or locality. Ultimately, much research must continue to be conducted to fully understand negative political advertising - a force with no end in sight, sure to be present in future campaigns at all levels of government.