Do Negative Campaigns Works?

negative campaigns
negative campaigns


Scientists in the field of political science have been focused for a long time on researching if the negative campaigns criticizing the political opponents are effective or not. The authors claim, that just negative campaigns can be kept in the minds of society longer, then positive campaigns. Laboratory research also proves that when during a process of selecting a suitable candidate, the company leans to the attacking candidate rather than the attacker. Are these targeted campaigns also appropriate in the era of social networks, where a classic media presentation through television or radio shows is covered by a permanent campaign through social networks? The paper will focus on exploring the communication of presidential candidates on the level of negativity and thematic diversity, in relation to public opinion polls.

Do candidates tend to engage voters with negativity, or do they use a more positive kind of communication though social networks instead?


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Political communication and negative campaigns

3. Negative campaign during presidential elections in Slovakia in 2019

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Political campaigns in recent years have undergone many changes not only in Slovakia but also in neighbouring countries. Campaigns have adapted to new trends, many new and unused tools have been used, and with the process of informatisation of society, campaigns have been refined. While early-stage campaigns were conducted through personal contacts, they are currently prioritized through web portals and social networks. A candidate or a political party can easily and vigorously address a voter, get feedback and respond to their political opponents.

The presentation of the candidates themselves can be positive, where the candidate presents himself outwardly to the voters and tries to reach them with his programs and visions. The opposite is a campaign conducted in a negative way, which aims to not present itself as a candidate but, on the contrary, to reduce the preferences of competing candidates or political parties by systematic attacks. The productivity of this type of campaign is questionable, but it is undoubtedly present across the political spectrum in Slovakia, but also in neighbouring countries. Negative campaigns are referred to as an effective tool for attracting attention and pointing out the shortcomings of other candidates.

In many cases, the candidate is a mediator of conflict and gains attention in a very simple way. However, campaigns of this type are also often referred as counterproductive, without any real offer to voters and unnecessarily polarizing society. Responses to this kind of campaign depend on the type of country in which it is implemented, its size, and, for example, its economic performance. A negative social networking campaign has the ability to systematically target candidates and, with real low input costs, allow a candidate or political party to achieve a favourable election result. The presidential elections in Slovakia in 2019 are no exception.

Candidates opt for different ways of running the campaign and negative political campaign is no exception. Aim of this report is to analyse campaigns of individual candidates for country president, implemented through social networks. Analysed reports will be assessed according to different criteria, thus clearly identifying the occurrence of negative type campaigns.


2. Political communication and negative campaigns

The term ‘political communication’ is very difficult to define. Pippa Noris [1] defines this term as an interactive process in which information is transmitted between politicians, the media and the public. In the case of this study, individual presidential candidates may be included in this process. In the past, this communication was predominantly a straight-line politician-voter, nowadays, citizens, trade unions as well as the media themselves in the form ofguard dogs’ are involved in this process. Given the nature of the work, it is possible to adopt a definition of the order concept from political actors to the voters by Jay G. Blumler and Dennis Kavanagh [2], which divide and concretise communication in three eras. These eras closely reflect developments on one side of political parties as well as technological progress. The advent of new media has perfected and accelerated communication of political subjects. Typical feature of the fourth era of political communication, dated at the beginning of the 21st century, is, according to Mackova [3] the process of mediation, where actors are increasingly adapting to new media, their requirements and logic. With the advent of new media, according to Engesser [4] the rate of populist behaviour of individual political actors has also increased. Social networks are therefore a perfect means of conducting a permanent campaign that is not limited by traditional media, where the political party or candidate does not need to be given enough space for their presentation. Also, this campaign can be kept constantly with little communication variations in the pre-election period [3].

The first forms of negative campaign can be traced back to the 19th century, but campaigns of this kind have not been systematically, strategically and mainly planned. More intense negative elections were visible after 1980, when, according to Bradova [5] their higher frequency and intensity of use was visible. Re-conceptual disunity is also visible when defining the term ‘negative campaign’. It is necessary to look at the concept from different definitions. The first quantitative aspect refers to a negative campaign being visible when at least 60% of the political ads are in a negative undertone [6]. In general, political communication can be divided into negative and positive. The negative campaign is also referred as offensive in American literature [7]. This kind of campaign may in its essence evoke something inappropriate, which does not fit into the political campaign and morally does not fit into the political struggle. On the other hand, a negative campaign can just implement and present the best alternative to highlight the differences between candidates.

The fundamental objective of political marketing is therefore filled and the candidate chooses the way of attacking his opponent instead of presenting his positive attributes and experiences [8].

With the advent of a new era of political communication, this kind of campaign has also begun to be used on social networks. So far, not many studies have published about this issue.

The topic of negative social networking campaigns was addressed by Wen Wei Chun, who focused on communication via Facebook social networking, before and after the 2012 presidential elections in Taiwan. Studies have shown the trend of using a negative campaign where the candidate’s defense was a priority. Overall, two presidential candidates reported 20% of negative posts from all on Facebook. The challenger used this motive of communication in a more prominent way and the favourite of the elections, Ma, used more defensive and promotional methods of his person [9]. According to Icar [10] this condition is justified by the weakness, or worse position, of the candidate, against the opponent. It is these candidates who resort to using a negative campaign and attacking a candidate who is a favourite.

However, the author himself could not confirm this hypothesis. Hansen and Pedersen [11] agree that a negative campaign is more visible in the second round of elections.

The reason for this hypothesis is the so-called boomerang effect where, when two candidates are attacking each other, a candidate who is not involved in the conflict can rise preferentially. The boomerang effect can be defined as a significant attack on a counter- candidate, which voters can perceive as misleading or unfounded by real facts. In this case, this attack raises negative feelings towards the attacking candidate. [12]. Thematically, this effect is, according to Kubacek [13], visible mainly in campaigns focusing on religion, marital status, ethnicity or sexual orientation, thus on topics that are less tolerant by electoral apparatus. Defenders of negative campaigns argue with a hypothetical situation where individual candidates would be convinced that their opponent would not use any criticism against them. Such a situation would be dangerous from the perspective of presenting and interpreting empty, exaggerated and unrealistically populist promises. The opposite is the positive perception of the campaign and the positive promotion of the candidate, which is aimed, for example, at defending family values, can be perceived by the company as uninteresting and vague at the same time [8]. Therefore, in this case, even this kind of campaign from a psychological point of view does not have to carry the electoral success.

According to Bradova [5], the very aim of the negative campaign is to increase the interest in the ongoing campaign, to improve the candidate’s voter rating, to polarize the company and especially the individual candidates as well as create awareness of candidates in a form that is likely to increase the level of engagement on the part of society, in the form of increased interest in elections. Aims of the secondary nature mentioned above are linked to the primary objective, namely to reduce the preferences of the political opponent. The competitive nature of negative campaigns is popular, in particular, when individual candidate preferences are relatively balanced. Their frequency is also visible in the case of challengers against the favourite, for example, the presidential election. Personality attacks on candidates that touch their privacy or on the opponent’s image are less successful than attacks on an opponent’s program [14]. From this point of view, the negative campaign can be divided into a type dedicated to the candidates program appeals, focusing on his political activity, electoral program or thematic attitude, and a negative campaign on the personal features and characteristics of the candidate, such as his personal life, sexual orientation or marital status.

Last but not least, the size of a constituency where deciding on the use of a negative campaign is generally the less the population, the more likely it is that voters will feel some kind of personal ties to the candidate. In a negative campaign with a small number of voters in the constituency, there may be a counterproductive state [8]. When using a negative campaign, it is necessary to count on potentially desirable but also adverse effects. These effects can represent peoples motivation to participate in elections, awareness of individual candidates, emotional behaviour in the selection of candidates, but also the behavioural effect on the candidate’s election preferences [14]. Positive effects in some cases may be replaced by negative effects. These include the demotivation and disgust of society in politics, i.e., the boycott of elections. The campaign can also turn against an attacker in the form of a boomerang effect, and that is connected with direct loss of support. The attacked often gets into the position of a victim with a victim-related syndrome, which manifests itself in the voters’ distrust of the attacker. In conclusion, this campaign may cause a double-damaging effect that will harm both the attacker and the attacked [5]. Electoral preferences in this case will fall for both competing candidates, while electoral support is increasing for an unrelated candidate. It should be noted that the effects of this campaign are specific to each country.

They relate to political culture in the country, to socio-economic factors but also to the electoral or party system of the country.


3. Negative campaign during presidential elections in Slovakia in 2019

The role of each candidate, as well as a political party, is to engage as far as possible its potential voter before the elections. Marketing teams prepare campaigns while adapting them to the profile of a candidate or political party. For communication, they use billboards, websites and also increasingly widespread communication through social networks. The analysis of campaigns and communication of presidential candidates in Slovakia was focused on this type of communication with voters. Thirteen candidates and their profiles on the Facebook social network were tracked. Candidates who resigned from the battle were eliminated methodically.

The time horizon was set from 10 of February to 10 of March. The reason for this selection was the fact that during this period, the campaigns of individual candidates culminated and rose simultaneously. The tendency of research and selection of this time horizon was to dispose of the largest possible number of candidate posts. This campaign ending period evokes in individual candidates the feeling that they must increasingly present their opinions and ideas. At the same time, more public opinion polls to which candidates have expressed are visible in this period. Posts were coded by the negativity/neutrality system, resulting in a clear selection of contributions that had a negative undertone. These posts were mostly devoted to attacking individual candidates, attacking the bad political situation in Slovakia and also attacking the European Union itself. Negative posts were subsequently divided into two subgroups. Posts in the first group had an undertone of negative attacks.

These attacks were largely devoted to the aforementioned issue, having a clear and distinct message to the candidate or institutions expressing his dissatisfaction. The second category consisted of negative posts with an undertone of defense. Defense was understood as an attack on a candidate and commenting on the situation, to his advantage. A typical post of this type was, for example, defending candidates against claims related to their tax returns, arrears in insurance companies, as well as campaign transparency. Posts from official profiles of individual candidates were monitored. In the case of lesser-known candidates, their fan pages’ were not followed, but their personal, publicly known and available profiles.


Fig. 1 shows the number of added posts on the personal profiles of individual candidates for the President of the Slovak Republic for the monitored period from February 10 to March 10. The most active presidential candidate was journalist Martin Daňo, the least active Juraj Zábojník. Interestingly, the long-term most successful candidates according to public opinion polls, Zuzana Čaputová and Maroš Šefčovič, use social networks for their presentation on average three times a day, Martin Daňo uses this communication on average up to 5 times a day. However, the nature of the posts is clearly different. Looking at candidates with high preferences, these posts are versatile and the campaign is highly professional. The mix of posts is made up of their own messages, comments on the current situation in Slovakia, as well as personal attacks on individual candidates.

They are mostly made up of posts that point out meeting with citizens in Slovakia, depending on the individual candidates. Compared to more active candidates, these campaigns are more professional and posts have their media logic. For candidates that are active, this media logic is often absent, the campaign and self- presentation are visibly less professional, which in this case means less costly. Candidates who use social networks the least are in this way of communication sporadic. Mostly, posts were added once a day, lacked media logic, and it was very difficult to find adequate information about the candidate.

The communication of Bela Bugár, who is currently the chairman of the Most-Híd party and participates in coalition governance, also appears interesting. His communication did not grow significantly, the change was only visible in the topic of posts. In this case, we can say that a well-known politician does not place too much emphasis on communication through social networks, but draws on the principle ofIncumbency advantage’, ie the relative awareness of politics, on a social scale.


Fig. 2 expresses the ratio of negative posts to all available posts during the reporting period. The most negative posts were present at Martin Daňo, Štefan Harabín and Róbert Švec. In general, it can be said that the campaigns were not significantly negative, as the following graphs show. If there were negative posts, they were mostly concerned with the candidates and pointing out their shortcomings. Other themes that had a negative undertone were the themes of the poor political situation in Slovakia, where criticism was given priority to the current functioning of government or political parties. The topic of the current socio- economic situation in Slovakia was also very mentioned, where candidates pointed out the poor state of health service, education, but also the overall functioning of the country.

Negativity was also directed also to exploration agencies and media, mostly newspapers. In this case, the candidates resisted and appealed for the untrustworthy opinion polls, the weak objectivity of newspapers or news, and the lack of room for expression. The last category of this type was the negative commenting on current events in Slovakia. Candidates often expressed dissatisfaction with investigating the murder of an investigative journalist, but also with the election of constitutional judges in Slovakia. The only candidate who has no negative mention in his social networking campaign is Juraj Zábojník. As it can be seen in the charts, this candidate does not preferentially communicate through social networks, hence his activity of this kind is severely limited and therefore no negative references were found in his communication analysis.


Fig 3. reflects the ratio of defensive and offensive negative contributions of individual candidates for which at least one negative-oriented post has been recorded. The most offensive campaign during our time of analysing was by Štefan Harabín. The presidential candidate pointed out and reacted negatively to the poor running of state institutions. He was followed by Martin Daňo, whose posts of this type were mostly directed against opponents, with the aim of pointing out their ‘true face’. The third most attacking candidate was Róbert Švec, whose criticism of non-governmental organizations, but also of the European Union and its functioning, was visible. As far as negative defense-related contributions are concerned, they were most noticed by Zuzana Čaputová. The candidate presents herself by making her campaign as positive as possible and responding to attacks on her person in a very neutral way.

Candidate Čaputová in this case tries to hold on to what she purposed and takes criticism from other candidates as part of political campaigns. Martin Daňo and Róbert Švec in their posts of this type appeal for their discredit and unequal treatment to other candidates. This type of reference has also been made to other candidates, mainly involving personal attacks on candidates or third parties in the form of nongovernmental organizations or media agencies. Also, candidates are often reserved to misinterpret individual information through the media. Looking at opinion polls, the strongest candidates or candidates in these surveys do not use the negative campaign to a significant extent. posts of this type are relatively few and largely oriented in a defensive way. Candidates trying to win the leading position of Zuzana Čaputová or Maroš Šefčovič in popularity are resorting to the opposite form of negative campaign, an offensive character with the aim of discrediting the leading position or reducing the preferences of better-placed candidates.


Fig. 4 shows the overall posts of the negative campaign opposed to the rest. Presidential elections are in a relatively calm and moderate form during the reporting period. Only 12% of individual candidate’s posts were negatively matched, the rest were in a neutral or positive sense. The theoretical part states that the campaign can be considered negative when its total number of negative-oriented posts is higher than 60%. In this case, none of the candidates has exceeded this number, and the overall share is not significantly negative. The most negative candidate reached a total negative post of 24.81%.


Tab. 1 compares the ratio of the negative campaign to the last FOCUS survey of the presidential candidates in 2019. Candidates in the table are ranked according to current preferences and then assigned a numerical rating of the negative campaign. Candidates with the lowest number (ranked 1) used the campaign most, the candidates with the highest number again the least. The favourites for the promotion to the second round did not use the campaign, or only used a minimum. An exception is the defense of Zuzana Čaputová, who has sided herself from speaking to her person. The table puts Stefan Harabin in the role of the most negative candidate, the least negative can be called Juraj Zbojník, but he does not primarily implement his campaign through the social network. The campaign is at least negatively led by František Mikloško. The table, therefore, points to the condition mentioned in the theory that favourites have no reason to use this kind of campaign actively and vice versa, candidates who are not favoured are trying to reduce the popularity and preferences of election favourites. The most negative candidates in this case were Martin Daňo, Marián Kotleba, Štefan Harabín and Róbert Švec. Among the least attacking we can include Zuzana Čaputová, Bela Bugár but also Maroš Šeovič and František Miklošek


4. Conclusion

The phenomenon of negative campaigns is perhaps present in every parliamentary, but also presidential or local election campaign. The thesis pointed out that this species is also visible in the Slovak presidential election, but not in the extent, as the authors say in the theoretical part of the thesis. Social networks have made people aware, and political candidates use them for their campaigns on a significant scale. However, the negative campaign was not confirmed by the authors. Campaigns are partially negative, but reach only 18% of all social media posts analysed. Candidate campaigns can be divided into professional and less professional.

Professionalism is visible mainly through the systematic nature of posts and their thematic diversity on individual candidate profiles. Conversely, candidates who use social networks most often absorb them often with unnecessary information that is not relevant. But it is necessary to identify with the claim that the favourites do not have to use the kind of negative campaign in their posts on the contrary. Candidates advised as favourites try to defy such campaigns and use the negative campaign defense system as a priority. Candidates that are trying to draw attention to themselves, but their chances of a successful election result are small according to surveys, resort to leading such a campaign. Whether it makes sense or not to bring such a campaign will show the elections themselves, but even this situation can have a significant impact on the perception of politics by society, electoral participation and the party system. Slovakias presidential elections are a specific feature when the trend of negativity is visible, but its relatively low presence is a positive.


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