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Despite best intentions, negative ads prosper in political campaigns

If there is one thing 2008’s political maneuvering has demonstrated, it is that claims to offer a different, unifying brand of politics yield to the same old politics of negative attacks. Why? Because partisans know it works.

Heightening political attacks raise an important question: Why is politics so negative compared to marketing, its private sector analog, even though every participant claims to detest it? The answer lies in two important ways political competition differs from market competition: far higher payoffs to attacks and far less informed “customers.”

In markets, sales require affirmative votes to buy a product. Just convincing a potential customer to shun a rival’s product does not mean a sale for you, because a prospect can choose among several sellers or not to buy at all. But those alternatives are unavailable in a two-candidate election, where customers (voters) are effectively forced to “buy” from one.

To a candidate, convincing an uncommitted voter to vote against their rival by tearing them down is as valuable as convincing someone to vote for you. Getting someone who would have voted for your rival to not vote is also as valuable as another vote for you. Switching a rival’s voter to your side is worth two votes, since it adds one for your side and subtracts one from their side.

That is why negative political campaigns prosper, despite turning many voters off from even participating. So long as candidates think more voters will abandon their rival than will abandon them, negative campaigns improve their electoral chances. In contrast, since that approach would reduce rather than increase market sales, the private sector avoids it.

The greater negativity payoff in politics is intensified because voters are less informed about what they are being “sold” than private sector customers.

People acquire information before making decisions only as long as they expect their benefits from making a better choice to exceed their costs of doing so. The benefit is substantial in market decisions, since your vote changes your outcome. However, your vote is one among many in elections, giving you a minuscule chance of changing the outcome, so a better informed vote yields you virtually no benefit. Further, the cost of acquiring the information necessary for public sector decisions is higher, involving far more and more complex information than just how a choice will directly affect you (e.g., government health care policy is far more complex than individuals choosing their private insurance plan).

The resulting voter ignorance raises the payoff to negative attacks, especially using misleading part-truths (the ease with which politicians’ part-truths can distort reality is one reason why there are no effective truth-in-advertising laws for politics, unlike for marketing claims in the private sector). Reality is complex, but appropriately selected half-truths are simple and easier to “sell” to voters paying limited attention. Any statement can be tortured into multiple caricatures, confusing understanding. Any policy bears multiple fingerprints, making accurate attribution a slippery subject. Any vote has multiple effects, some adverse, and those can be easily isolated and repackaged to inflame uninformed voters. Politics also involves compromises, and taken out of context, any compromise provides fodder for attacks that a candidate has abandoned principle (not that there aren’t plenty of examples where that is true).

Today, campaigns loudly decry opponents’ attacks while they, surrogates and backers launch their own. But negativity is inherent in the incentive structure of modern politics. So the only real solution is reducing the power of government over our lives, returning control to the voluntary arrangements we make for ourselves. Then our individual votes will determine our results and give us sufficient incentives to really understand what we are choosing. Unfortunately, as long as government continues to expand its control over each of us, raising the payoff to controlling the political machinery, it will only get worse.


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