The Journal of Politics


What's Good for the Goose is Bad for the Gander: Negative Political Advertising, Partisanship, and Turnout

Daniel Stevensa1, John Sullivana2, Barbara Allena3 and Dean Algera4

a1 University of Exeter

a2 University of Minnesota

a3 Carleton College

a4 Independent scholar


This study examines citizens’ perceptions of fairness and legitimacy in political advertising. Using focus groups, an original national survey, and data on election 2000, as well as drawing on results from a replication of the national survey in 2004, we characterize political ads from the citizen's perspective. We then turn to the impact of “negative” advertising on voter turnout. Like several studies, we find circumstances under which turnout can be increased by negative ad criticisms. However, we show that this general result is only part of the story. Drawing on research in political psychology, we suggest that voters are “motivated processors” of advertising claims; as such, they evaluate the fairness of an ad according to their partisan predispositions. We show that when partisans perceive the criticisms of their own party's candidate to be fair, they are less likely to say they will vote. As a result, we find that negative advertising not only may affect the total turnout in an election but also has an important and varying impact on the composition of the electorate.

(Received July 05 2006)

(Accepted February 07 2007)


Daniel Stevens is senior lecturer of politics, University of Exeter, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9EZ, England. John Sullivan is regents professor of political science, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455. Barbara Allen is professor of political science, Carleton College, Northfield, MN 55057. Dean Alger is an independent scholar.