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Hate Negative Ads? Then Vote Third Party

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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So you don’t like either candidate in this year’s presidential contest, but you’re afraid that if you support a third party you’ll be wasting your vote? Relax. You can tell yourself that if you cast a ballot for the Libertarians or the Greens, you will help create a public good: a reduction in negative advertising.

Seriously.

Don’t worry, those of you who believe this is the most important election of our lifetimes. I’m not going to argue that voters should turn away from the major parties. I only want to note that if lots of people do, we might eventually find ourselves with three rather than two serious and viable political parties, an outcome that might have a salutary effect on the atmosphere in which we conduct our campaigns.

It’s likely that hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent this year on negative advertising. As of the end of August, the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, had outspent the Republican, Donald Trump, on television ads by $75 million to $7.7 million, a ratio of nearly 10-1. The difference among independent groups is smaller but still enormous: $47 million for Clinton versus $15 million for Trump. As Election Day approaches, Trump will surely do his best to strike back. And both sides’ ads will turn increasingly negative. This can’t be the best way to run an election.

True, lots of voters are willing to stomach attack ads when their candidate needs a boost, but I doubt that any large subset of voters actually likes them. Although there’s debate in the literature on whether negative advertising increases popular cynicism toward politics,  I don’t suppose anybody thinks filling the airwaves with charges and countercharges makes our elections better. But we can’t figure out how to get rid of attack ads unless we know why they’re so ubiquitous to begin with.

There is a surfeit of literature attesting to both the amount of negative advertising in U.S. political campaigns and its effect.  But little work has been done on the problem of just why negative ads are so common here. A recent article by the economists Amit Gandhi, Daniela Iorio and Carly Urban fills that gap by suggesting a surprising answer: the two-party system.

The authors gathered data on nearly 700,000 political ads run in 2002, 2004 and 2008 during primaries for governorships and seats in the U.S. House and Senate. (They omitted presidential contests because there is too small a sample of multicandidate races.) Their findings were striking. Candidates in two-sided races were twice as likely as those with multiple opponents to engage in negative advertising.

They found the effect to be robust whether or not an incumbent was in the race, and without regard to whether the opposing party was running a single strong candidate or a contested primary of its own. It is a well-known finding of political science that close races generate more negative ads, but even taking this factor into account, the authors found essentially the same result.

Further, the authors tell us, not only are negative advertisements more common in duopolies -- so are responsive attack ads from the opponent. The authors found that in two-candidate races, the chance that the target of an attack ad will respond is just over 50 percent. In races with three candidates, however, the response rate drops to just 21 percent.

Why does the likelihood of negative ads depend on the number of candidates? The authors posit that it’s due to a spillover effect: In a two-person race, A’s negative ad in theory harms only B. In a three-person race, however, A’s attack on B might help C. Suppose that A’s ad scares voters away from supporting B. In a duopoly, either A gets those voters or they stay home. In a three-candidate race, however, there is another option: The former B voters can now support C. Thus A’s attack ad can benefit C.

How does all this relate to this year’s presidential contest? Let’s suppose that the research by Gandhi, Iorio and Urban holds up on a national level -- in other words, what’s true of a three-viable-candidate gubernatorial primary will also be true of a three-viable-candidate presidential election. In that case, the more people who vote for a third-party candidate, the greater the chances, in the next cycle if not this one, that the other candidates will cut down on the negative ads. All that is required is for the major parties to believe that a third-party candidate has a serious chance to win -- in other words, a three-party system.

For those who think the stakes are too high, maybe this is the wrong election for offering such advice. But for those who want to cleanse the airways of negative ads, supporting third parties might well turn out to be the way to do it.

  1. This might depend on what party you root for. A much-cited student paper suggests that turnout rises when a Republican but not when a Democrat goes negative.

  2. See, for instance, here versus here.

  3. I argued years ago that we should boycott campaigns that run negative ads, even when we like the candidate, but that rather idealistic ship has long sailed.

  4. We know, for example, that the effects of negative ads are usually small, and tend to dissipate swiftly, which is why running them late is better than running them early. We know that in presidential races, advertising from parties and “independent” groups is much more likely to be negative than advertising run by candidates.

  5. The word “recent” is chosen advisedly. The article appears in the August 2016 printed issue of the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, but has been available at the journal’s online site since last fall.

  6. The authors restricted their analysis to “viable” candidates, using several measures to exclude “fringe” candidates “who pose no real competitive threat to the viable candidates.”

  7. There is some experimental evidence to suggest that a response ad may be more effective than the initial attacking ad, if the viewer is aware of both.

  8. In case you’re wondering, the evidence suggests that negative advertising by third-party candidates is unlikely to make a significant difference in the outcome.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net