Interviewee: John Geer
Distinguished Professor and Chair of Political Science, Vanderbilt University
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
May 1, 2014
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Q: OK. John Geer, Professor John Geer, whatever possessed you to write a book called In Defense of Negativity? What gave you the idea and the motivation to write a book with that theme?
GEER: Well, you know, I’d been studying campaigns for a long, long time, and I had been looking at political ads, and I’ve been coding them, and I had an idea about looking at how the ads would affect the public. But I realized that the methodology that I would employ wasn’t going to be cutting edge, and really wasn’t going to influence many people. And then some work came out by Steve Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar, complaining about negative ads and saying that they demobilize the public, etc. And two things struck me about that work. One is that I didn’t believe that negative ads would necessarily demobilize it. In fact, I could imagine attacking somebody might give you reason to turn out, because you’re reminded when Democrats [00:01:00]are Democrats, it’s partly because they don’t like the Republicans. So if you tell people why the Republicans are bad to control the country, all of the sudden you might get more turnout. The other thing that’s, I think, a flaw of political science as a field is that we tend to do a lot of surveys and we tend to study voters, and we think that various things are going to influence voters, but we often don’t know what those things are that are doing the influencing. So when we talked about negative ads or positive ads, we really didn’t have any detailed idea about what was going on. And so I thought, “You know, it’s probably a good idea just to step back and take a look at actually what the ads themselves contained.” And so rather than studying voters, I thought we should just figure out what’s going on with the ads themselves. And then I started thinking about it more and more, and I realized, “Wait a second, these positive ads, why do we like them?” You know, we find out that a candidate is going to be supportive of children, and that they favor clean water, that they want more jobs. Well, those are all good things, but there’s no candidate in the history of the republic [00:02:00] that has opposed children, opposed clean air, and opposed jobs. And so I thought, you know, the standard here that people are employing is one of some sort of coming out of, you know, political philosophy in Ancient Greek city-states and what everything should be, rather than what things were. And the basic comparison mattered. So rather than comparing negative ads to some idea about the way campaign rhetoric should unfold. Let’s compare negative to positive. And I happen to have collected a huge amount of data from ’52 to, at that point, ’92, and all those presidential campaigns. I knew almost all the ads, and I had a database that was set up for it. And so it was really the work of the Going Negative group by Steve Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar that got me thinking about this, because their work was important, but I thought it was a bit overstated, and it was a bit rushed because we still didn’t know enough about ads.
Q: Well, their theory [00:03:00] really confirmed and contributed to what is still in many ways the conventional wisdom, which is that when candidates go negative against each other, voters will decide, “Well, I guess neither one of them is any good.” And your term is demobilized, don’t vote. Where did that idea come from? And why is it so appealing to so many people who write about politics?
GEER: Yeah. It is the conventional wisdom, though I think it’s now started to fade. When that book was written in the first article that appeared in American Political Science Review as well, they found a five percentage point effect, and they did so both with the survey data, aggregate data, really more aggregate data and experimental data. And so it’s kind of multi-method, and seemed to have a lot of bang for the buck, and that was — really made it quite compelling. And we also knew that turnout in general had been declining over the period, and so we had an easy explanation, that it wasn’t anything more than just these terrible, negative ads, and you could blame politicians and consultants. [00:04:00] And it just all had great appeal. But to me, again, thinking back to, you know, when I did my graduate work, after I did it at Princeton with Stan Kelley, who was very much a student of campaigns, I went and hung out basically for nine years there. I was on a study with Warren Miller, one of the authors of The American Voter. And I learned a lot about how partisanship worked, and partisanship was partly based on things you disliked about candidates. And so I could begin to believe that you can see why ads might demobilize. But no one had thought about why negative ads might mobilize. And so imagine, for example — let’s take a totally different case. Let’s say you and I, you know, we’re friends, but we’re not super close friends, but all of the sudden, I attack your mother. Well, you get engaged by that, and you’re not very happy. You don’t just all of the sudden shrink from it. You in fact react to it very strongly, because I’m going after somebody who you care deeply about. And so you could imagine certain kinds of attacks getting people more engaged. And I also thought [00:05:00]that the reason you’re having these attacks is it’s a competitive battle. It’s back and forth, and competition gives people more reason to turn out. And so I began to think this is not a very well developed hypothesis by these scholars. That it was an interesting one, but not thought through the flip side of it. And so I’d written an article with Steve Finkel, who’s now at the University of Pittsburgh that, I don’t know, it’s 15 years old or so, where we looked at the other side —
Q: The article is 15 years old.
GEER: Yes, right. Yeah. The article is 15 years old, published in 1998, where we try to develop the other side of the coin, and basically put forward a null hypothesis. That is, that it wasn’t that attack ads mobilized, is that under some conditions, they mobilized, under some conditions, they demobilized. And probably, and then that didn’t have much effect either way. And we had some data that, you know, backed that up, and began a whole set of articles that came out questioning the original demobilization hypothesis, to the point where I think it’s very much conditional. [00:06:00] That in fact, it can decrease turnout, but it can also increase turnout. And we’ve also had the benefit of a lot of elections since when Steve and Shanto did their original work. But during the course, when negativity has been on the rise in presidential campaigns, starting in ’88 and going forward now to 2012, that we had a big increase in turnout during this period in time. You know, more people voted in the 2008 campaign than had voted since 1960. Not sheer numbers, but I’m talking about the proportion of the eligible electorate. And so while this negativity was on the rise, which we had clear documentation of, turnout was also on the rise. Now, I’m not positing a causal relationship, but it certainly says, “Well, we got to be more careful thinking it’s doing all this demobilizing.”