Mudslinging pays off in politics

Political parties are able to weaken their rivals’ reputation among voters. New research from Aarhus BSS shows that an effective strategy for doing so is to blame political opponents for current problems in society.

10.05.2019 | MIA ULVGRAVEN

When watching election debates, you might wish that politicians would focus more on their own policy rather than demean the policy of their opponents. But the fact is that criticism works.

Parties are able to weaken the reputation of their opponents among voters by doubting their competences. This is the conclusion of a new study from the Department of Political Science, which will soon be published in the renowned journal West European Politics.

 “My study provides an explanation for why election campaigns are often dirty, and why parties spend a lot of time on mudslinging and blaming each other for issues that concern voters,” says the researcher behind the study Henrik Bech Seeberg, who is an associate professor of political science at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University.

Tough competition for issue ownership

The study is based on the concept of issue ownership, which is concerned with how voters assess the parties’ ability to handle specific topics such as immigration, environment and healthcare. The issue is owned by the party that voters trust the most.

Previous research has shown that issue ownership is pivotal in elections, and that it can have significant consequences when a party loses an issue ownership to a rival party. Until now, there has been no research into how parties can influence their rivals’ issue ownerships. This, however, is the focus of the new study conducted by Seeberg. In the study, he tests three different counteract strategies through experiments in Denmark and the US.

The conclusion is that Danish as well as American parties are able to weaken their rivals on issue ownerships that these rivals have traditionally controlled. They can do this in two ways.

"If the election is close as it often is in Denmark, even minor shifts as a result of mudslinging can be crucial"

Henrik Bech Seeberg, associate professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS

Two strategies that work - and one that doesn’t

One of the effective counteract strategies is to blame the rival party for the problems that exist in a given area.

The other effective strategy is to reframe the issue so that voters perceive the essence of the issue in a new way.

The study’s experiments specifically show that the Social Democratic Party (Socialdemokratiet) can weaken the Liberal Party (Venstre) on agricultural policy by blaming the party for problems in the agricultural sector, and by reframing agricultural policy to revolve around environmental policy instead of business policy.

“With this framing, the Liberal Party becomes less of the natural choice to manage the issue for voters,” says Seeberg.

“Actually, we also see the framing strategy unfolding in the environmental area right now, as the liberals are partly reframing the issue to revolve around the technological development, and thereby business policy, rather than traditional environmental regulation.” 

According to Seeberg, the reason for why blaming your opponent is an effective strategy is probably that the human brain has a tendency to attach more significance to negative information than positive.

“Voters thus notice the criticism and are influenced by it. An interesting example from the real world is the Liberal Party’s highly publicised press conference on 9 April. The purpose of this press conference was not just to declare their disagreement with the Social Democratic Party, but also to undermine the Social Democratic Party’s reputation on the immigration area. Afterwards, the Liberal Party was criticised for conducting a scare campaign, but that doesn’t change the fact that they managed to raise critical questions within the voters about the Social Democratic Party’s immigration policy,” says Seeberg. 

The study also tests a third strategy for attacking the rivals’ issue ownership. This concerns moving your policy position closer to that of the rival party. However, this strategy is ineffective, and in the Danish experiment, it completely backfires.

When the Social Democratic Party takes the Liberal Party’s position on agricultural policy and points out the similarities between the two parties instead of their differences, it only serves to strengthen the Liberal Party’s reputation on agriculture.

“This is probably because the Social Democratic Party legitimises the Liberal Party’s position to the voters. It just shows how hard it can be for a party to change positions in the short term. We’ve also seen this on the issue of immigration, where the Social Democratic Party has long tried to take over the right wing’s stance and thereby weaken the right wing’s issue ownership in the area. This has only just recently had a positive effect after a lot of legwork,” says Seeberg.

Issue ownership can decide close elections

The new research experiments measure the immediate effect of a party’s communication about a rival party. In the upcoming Danish election, Seeberg expects that we will see parties blaming rivals and trying to reframe how voters regard the issues that belong to the rivals.

“The study indicates that parties need to do this quite persistently and intensely to make a real difference. Even though the contrasts are drawn up sharply in the experiment, the opposing party can only weaken the other party’s reputation by around seven per cent. If the election is close as it often is in Denmark, even minor shifts as a result of mudslinging can be crucial,” Seeberg argues.

He adds that issue ownerships have had an impact on previous elections.

“The prime example in Danish politics is probably how former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s succeeded in capturing the healthcare agenda in the 2001 election,” says Seeberg.

About the study

  • The study is based on surveys conducted in 2017 - among 2,553 voters in the United States and 1,522 voters in Denmark.
  • The questionnaire surveys have built-in experiments, where two groups of voters read different versions of a hypothetical newspaper article before evaluating how competent a party is in solving the issue explained in the article. In one of the experiments, the participants read two almost identical articles that describe the financial problems of Danish farmers’ and the lull in the export markets. In both cases, a leading member of the Social Democratic Party talks about the role played by the Liberal Party. The article read by the first group states that the Social Democratic Party blames the Liberal Party. The article read by the second group states the Social Democratic Party believes that the problems are caused by the export markets rather than by the Liberal Party. Afterwards, the two groups were given the same question asking them to evaluate the Liberal Party’s competences on agricultural policy.
  • The experiments were based on carefully selected issues from real-life political debates. In Denmark, the Social Democratic Party is attacking the Liberal Party’s issue ownership on agriculture. In the US, the Democrats is attacking the Republicans’ issue ownership on business, while the Republicans is attacking the Democrats’ issue ownership on environment. In the real-life debates, the attacking parties have all made use of arguments that have revolved around criticising, reframing and moving their position closer to the rival party’s. The respondents in the surveys were presented with real arguments that had been posed by members of the Social Democratic Party in the Danish Parliament and by American Congressmen. Counter arguments were also incorporated in the articles. While this probably limits the effect of the attacking parties’ communication, it creates a realistic image in return.
  • The American experiments in the study show that by using reframing and blaming, the Democrats can weaken the Republicans’ issue ownership on business, and that the Republicans can weaken the Democrats’ issue ownership on environment by using the same strategies.
  • The fact that there are agreements between the results of the Danish and American experiments shows that the mechanisms are the same across very different political systems.
  • The study in the United States was supported by a grant from the Independent Research Fund Denmark.

Source: Henrik Bech Seeberg: Issue ownership attack: How a political party can counteract a rival’s issue ownership’. West European Politics (accepted in press).