By Sabren Wahden

April 2019

The relationship between media consumption and negative campaign advertising with political participation, specifically in electoral activities, has attracted considerable concern among political science scholars. Leading up to the election, presidential candidates and their campaigns send messages, typically through campaign advertisements, to the public about why they deserve their support; most often candidates will talk about their positions on specific issues as well as goals for the future. The public then retrieves these messages and considers them when voting. Political ads serve a consequential role in the election process, they inform the public. Ansolabehere and Iyengar (1995, 59) confirm this as they contend that ads “enlighten voters and enable them to take account of issues and policies when choosing between the candidates.” Recently, Americans have been bombarded with increasing amounts of negative campaign advertisements. A September 2016 report from the Wesleyan Media Project (2016) showed that 53 percent of campaign ads that aired in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election were negative. Politicians and scholars have voiced concerns that the focus on negativity as a campaign tactic disrupts the legitimacy of the political process by depressing voter turnout. They argue that the ultimate outcome may be citizens high in cynicism and apathy, unwilling to engage in the most basic forms of civic engagement and political participation, such as voting. However, given the tone of the recent presidential campaigns, it seems that many campaign teams believe it is a winning strategy to play on the emotions of voters. Negative ads blanketed airwaves in the 2016 US Presidential campaign election; the Clinton and Trump campaigns used appeals of fear and anger in their ads to elevate anxiety and cynicism surrounding the campaign; exposure to these negative campaign ads stimulated voter turnout. Negative advertisements stimulate voter turnout because they assure more attention from voters in an otherwise crowded advertisement environment, additionally, they result in voters becoming more likely to incorporate the negative information into their evaluations. While Clinton, and Trump both ran fear-evoking ads, Trump’s ads were more efficacious in that his campaign strategy not only focused on evoking emotions through character-based and policy issue ads, but also targeted appropriate audiences, which allowed him to stimulate support in the polls which led to his presidential victory. 

Literature Review

Negative campaigns are characterized by an attacking tone in political debates and by political messages that focus on the character flaws or shortcomings of the opposing candidate It, of course, is not that simple, since many negative ads also feature ominous music, dark images, and scary images. For negativity to influence behaviors or attitudes, however, voters must seek-out, or at least not avoid these attacks. Indeed, an important finding in campaign research is that attack ads are typically more interesting, provocative or compelling to watch, making them more effective at catching people’s attention. Psychology tells us that negativity is inherently attention-getting (Pratto and John 1991) and often more memorable than positivity (Lau 1985) and general impressions formed on the basis of negative information tends to be weighted more heavily. The use of negativity might not only ensure more attention from voters but also result in voters becoming more likely to incorporate that negative information into their evaluations (Mattes and Redlawsk 2014). When normally inattentive people sense that something is not right they become anxious; when a voter experiences the anxiety emotion about a political situation it causes the voter to pay close attention to politics and will make a decision that will optimize their own self-interests. The affective intelligence theory then suggests that anxious citizens are more likely to vote. Assuming the affective intelligence theory is valid, the electoral candidate who wishes to generate interests in a campaign has an incentive to adopt a negative or attacking attitude towards the opposite candidate in hopes of generating a sense of anxiety about the consequence of the election; negative or attack advertisements and messages are an obvious manifestation of this goal. 

Existing studies on negative advertising leads to conflicting predictions about the effect of campaign negativity on turnout. There is a consensus among politicians and scholars about negative advertisements and its adverse impact on the electoral process, critics argue that negative ads are pernicious and threaten American democracy.  Former Democratic Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota compared negative advertisements to drugs as he said: “negative advertising is the crack cocaine of politics.” Scholars Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar (1995) contend that negative advertising disenfranchises voters by turning them off from the political process. Similarly, Thomas Patterson (2002, 51) says that negative ads have detrimental effects on the political process. He argues that “negative politics appears to wear some people down to the point where they simply want less of politics.”  Additionally, scholars argue that negative advertisements intensify divisions among voters and are not good for democracy (Lau and Sigelman 2000). J.H. Clinger (1987, 746) believes that negative advertisements have created “an increasing intellectual and ethical bankruptcy of modern presidential debate,” which is undermining the “very future of democratic self-government.” 

While scholars such as Ansolabehere and Iyengar contend that negative advertisements decrease voter turnout, a number of scholars such as Wattenberg and Brians (2009) Freedman and Goldstein (1999) argue that negativity actually mobilizes the electorate. For instance, Kahn and Kenney (1999) analyzed the 1990 Senate elections and found that negative advertisements increased turnout, Freedman, and Goldstein (1999) were brought to the same conclusion when they analyzed the 1997 Virginia gubernatorial election and the 1996 Presidential election.  Lau and Pomper (2001) also found that negativity in political campaigns increased voter turnout when they examined Senate elections between the years of 1988 and 1998.  It has been suggested, that rather than turning voters away from politics, negative campaign ads may actually increase citizens’ political engagement and improve the quality of political discussions by raising issues that are important to voters and sending the message that something significant is at stake in a given election, which then, in turn, means people will vote. 

Additionally, scholars have argued that negative ads help stimulate voter turnout because they provide a significant amount of information relevant to the voting decision because such negative information may be given greater weight in political judgments than positive messages.

According to Geer (2006), democracy is well served by candidates’ efforts to discuss their opponents’ weaknesses. These efforts inject important information about candidates’ character and policy positions into the public discourse for consideration by voters. Accordingly, Geer claims that negative campaigning actually enriches the information environment surrounding political campaigns, writing, ―Any deliberative process usually benefits from having criticism and debate (Geer 2006, 2).

Negative ads enrich the information environment available to citizens; negative ads serve a democratic function because they allow voters to have access to more discussions about important issues presented with specificity and evidence to support candidates’ appeals (Kelly 1960). Negative ads are important because those out of power have the right and ability to raise doubts about those in power. Otherwise, the public does not have access to full information “about the relevant alternative policies and their likely consequences” (Dahl 1998, 37).  Furthermore, negative appeals may produce stronger affective responses, leading to heightened enthusiasm for candidates, greater engagement with the election, and increased motivation to learn more about the candidates. Finkel and Geer (1998, 577) reveal that “negativity augments turnout voters by arousing the voter enthusiasm for his or her preferred candidates or by increasing the degree to which a voter cares about the outcome of the election.”

On the other hand, scholars such as Krasno and Green (2006) have identified no consistent relationship between negative campaigning and voter turnout; negative ads either promote or diminish turnout. Niven (2006) found the overall effect of negativity to be null, he claimed that informed voters are more likely to vote regardless of information tone.  

Overall, the relevant literature on negative political campaigning lacks uniformity. 

Presidential Campaign Advertisements: Historical Context

Political ads are the major means in which candidates for president communicate their message to voters and with advertising, through advertisements, candidates can shape and mold themes they want to convey to voters. Negative campaigning in presidential elections isn’t anything new. As an essential strategy of the campaign, political strategists, since the time of the United States’ first contested election, have offered to voters advertising that caters in favor of their candidate and defames or distorts the candidate’s opponents. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson used handbills to hurl insults at the oppositions, and he paid the editor of the Richmond Examiner to print anti-Federalist and anti-Adams articles and praise his own campaign. The 1952 presidential election between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson marked the transformation of the political landscape when both campaigns ran the first televised ads, evoking World War II memories; from that point forward, television became the primary medium of mass communication. The 1964 presidential campaign was one of the most negative races since the advent of television.  President Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign aired the “Daisy” ad which is arguably, and for better or worse, the mother of all attack ads. This famous advertisement featured a small girl picking petals off a flower and counting the number pulled off. As she does, an ominous voice begins a countdown — “ten, nine, eight, seven, six….” At the end of the countdown, the screen filled with a nuclear blast. This ad was created in an attempt to frame Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater as an extremist who was not to be trusted with America’s future. The Daisy ad was not the only negative attack ad President Lyndon B. Johnson had up his sleeve. He made hay out of his opponent’s endorsement by a white supremacist group. The ad featured clips of Alabama Ku Klux Klan members burning a cross at night time. The ad’s narrator then quotes a member of the Alabama Klan saying, “I like Barry Goldwater. He needs our help.” The narrator in the Johnson ad voices concern over that the Ku Klux Klan’s alleged support for Senator Goldwater. “Read my lips: No new taxes” was President George H. Bush’s infamous phrase; it helped boost his popularity during the 1988 Presidential election. In 1992, President Bill Clinton’s campaign cited the phrase and questioned Bush’s trustworthiness in the attack ad. The ad featured a clip of Bush saying “Read my lips. No new taxes,” Then the narrator of the ad says “Then George Bush signed the second-biggest tax increase in American history.” The ad uses Bush’s own words against him. Clinton aimed to present President H.W. Bush as a hypocrite that fails to keeps his promises. In 2004, George W. Bush’s campaign depicted John Kerry as a flip-flopper, in the “Windsurfing” ad. Kerry had the tendency to flip-flop on the key issues of the day; using an image of Kerry windsurfing and the tagline “Whichever way the Wind Blows,” Bush illustrated Kerry’s problem. In 2008, McCain’s campaign used ads to aggressively define Obama as an arrogant man who is out of touch and unprepared for the presidency. While character attacks have always been a feature of campaign advertising, during the   2016 election, character attacks were the main ad strategy for President Trump, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Clinton and Trump’s campaigns feature the takeaway message that their opponent is not fit for the presidency. Fear and anger were the key emotions of ads from all four presidential campaigns.


This study analyzes negative advertisements issued during the 2016 presidential campaigns and its effect on voter turnout rate.  To test the hypothesis about the effect of negative advertisements on voter turnout, Fowler, Franz, and Ridout’s (2016) methodology will be borrowed and modified. Presidential ads are carefully developed, designed and tested. Before ads are released campaigns and their consultants make several decisions about the content of the ads and distribution of the ads.  Most recently, campaigns have come up with increasingly sophisticated ways in which they direct advertisements to the electorate. Campaigns are now able to precisely locate the types of voters they want to speak to. Campaigns target specific individuals with specific characteristics   Fowler, Franz, and Ridout (2016) study the content of political advertisements specifically Presidential and Congressional ads, the distribution of political advertisements and explore how these two factors influence voters. 

The underlying data from Fowler, Franz, and Ridout’s (2016) study come from an ad firm, Kantar Media/CMAG which is a comprehensive database containing information including market station data and the exact time period, frame and location of each ad airing.  With this date, Fowler, Franz, and Ridout examine how the ads were directed. They find that most recently, campaigns have been using methods such as ad targeting and micro-targeting.  Ad targeting refers to the practice of strategically placing ads on programs whose viewers belong to the demographic groups that sponsors want to reach, these ads fit very specific profiles across the television dial and now social media and internet. Micro-targeting refers to a campaign strategy in which campaigns use available public and private data to locate partisans for support or to reach independents or opposing partisans for persuasive messages. By micro-targeting, campaigns are able to identify the interests of specific individuals or very small groups of like-minded individuals and influence their thoughts or actions.

A team of trained students then watched videos from various election cycles and compiled information about each ad’s content. They classified ads into three categories: (1) positive (or promotional) ads that talk solely and speak highly about the favored candidate; (2) purely negative (or attack) ads that talk about the opponent whether it be the opponent’s character or stance on policy; and (3) contrast (or comparative) ads, which contain information about both candidates. In addition, Fowler, Franz, and Ridout’s trained students kept track of whether the ad references other national political leaders, whether the favored candidate or opponent appears in the ad, and what types of references are used about the candidates (for instance if the candidate or opponent is delivered as honest or dishonest). They also researched which issues are mentioned in the ad such as terrorism, gun control or the economy. 

Upon examining content and distribution/ targeting information, Fowler, Franz, and Ridout (2016) then compile this information and study correlations between the two. Ultimately, Fowler, Franz, and Ridout find that citizens may grow sick of campaign advertisements, but these ads are not inherently bad. Negative ads serve a positive purpose by informing and engaging the electorate. 

The methodology used in the Fowler, Franz, and Ridout (2016) study will also be used in this study, but their methodology will be modified a bit. Instead of classifying content into 3 separate categories, I will classify the ads into two categories, (1) positive (or promotional) ads that talk solely and speak highly about the favored candidate’s character and policies; (2) purely negative (or attack) ads that talk about the opponent whether it be the opponent’s character or stance on policy. Upon completion of classifications, I will weed out the positive ads and focus solely on the negative ads.  The way in which Fowler, Franz, and Ridout examined the distribution of ad data through marketing strategies such as ad targeting and micro-targeting will be borrowed. The comparison portion of the study in which Fowler, Franz, and Ridout study the relationship between ad content and ad distribution and its effect on voter turnout will also be borrowed. 

Hillary Clinton’s campaign organization, Hillary for America, produced 38 televised ads between July 7th and October 25th of 2016. Through negative character attacks and strategic emotional appeals, Clinton’s campaign had an ineffective ad strategy for the 2016 general election. In this study, an analysis of this 16-week period will begin by an examination of rhetorical strategies used within Clinton’s 38 television ads and a discussion of the distribution and circulation of the advertisements and the reception by viewers will take place. 

The paper will conclude by contrasting Clinton’s ineffective ad strategies with President Trump’s effective campaign strategies, in which the results will reveal that Trump’s campaign strategically directed negative ads accordingly (ad targeting and micro-targeting), tactics that helped propel him to victory. Trump’s campaign targeted thousands of negative campaign ads which in effect brought voters to the polls.

The Clinton Campaign: Hillary for America

Hillary for America produced 38 televisions ads between July 2016 and October 2016. A coding analysis of the Clinton ads indicates that her campaign primarily used negative, character-based content and produced strategic emotional appeals such as fear, sadness, and anger as an advertising strategy. Only ten ads were predominantly issue or policy focused ads, while the other 28 were character focused ads; 21 out of 38 of Clinton’s television ads were fear-mongering ads, that showcased apocalyptic visions of desperation (See Figure 2).  A majority of Clinton’s ads overtly attacked Trump; her attacks addressed Trump’s temperament and intelligence by frequently using the words and images of Trump as ammunition. “Role Models” was Clinton’s most highly circulated ad on both TV and digital markets. The ad played more than 15,000 times on TV, and generated 1,550,000 views on YouTube; the ad is an exemplar of the Clinton attack strategy.  Using sound bites and raw footage from Trump’s primary campaign, “Role Models” depicts Donald Trump as an irrational and inappropriate candidate, dangerous for children and society at large.  Unlike negative, fear-mongering, apocalyptic visions of desperation, ads that appeal to our desire for transcendence and connectedness are generally positive and uplifting. They tap into a deeply human sense of longing, hope, and desire for a deeply spiritual communal connection, which transcends the isolation and selfishness of individualism. This ad attempts to blatantly contrast the apocalyptic violations as the ad flashes images of innocent children quietly witnessing Donald Trump saying outrageous, sexist, demeaning remarks such cursing at a New Hampshire rally, and mocking a disabled journalist. As these clips play, the ad shows the children consuming his perilous messages. At the end of the ad, Clinton is contrasted to Trump as a symbol of joy and optimism, Clinton is shown smiling, dressed in white and surrounded by light.

Trump’s ableist messages are not a kind lesson for children, nor are they a positive message for our most impressionable population.  Additional ads represented an implicit attack on Trump, juxtaposing him as the negative counterpart to Clinton’s positive character. Ads such as “Just One,” “Someplace,” and “Americas Bully” served as part of a series of comparative attack ads questioning Trump’s fitness. The ads addressed Trump’s temperament and intelligence, contrasting him with Clinton’s moral character, government experience, and steady nature. In attacking Trump’s characters and improprieties, the ads primarily appealed to emotions of fear, sadness, anger, and concern. 

Clinton’s ad strategy mimicked the broad strategy of her campaign: a cohesive narrative of painting Trump as an unfit, erratic, bigoted candidate who poses a threat to the country, and Clinton as the strong moral leader, fighting for the most vulnerable members of society. Although she spent a large sum of money on negative campaign ads, more than Trump’s campaign did, she still lost the election.  Clinton did induce fear and anxiety in the American people, but Trump had the upper hand; the amount of money she spent producing ads featuring Trump’s unprecedented comments didn’t move the needle. 

Trump announced his candidacy so far ahead of time (June 16, 2015) that from the moment he announced his candidacy for president, he set the tone for his campaign, telling supporters gathered at Trump Tower in New York City that the country had become “a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.” Calling for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump singled out Mexican immigrants for criticism, saying that Mexico is not sending their “best” people across the border. By the time Clinton’s campaign released their ads, Americans were used to Trump’s outlandish comments. At that point, Trump had already said hundreds of outrageous remarks, and Americans became immune to Trump’s words; Clinton’s ads were just a repetition of what Americans already knew. She hyper-focused on pointing out the obvious. Additionally, Clinton’s campaign failed to use a full range of message strategies to contrast her policies with Trump’s and to bolster her own image through her campaign ads (See Figure 3). The Clinton campaign put all its advertising and messaging eggs in one basket. Her ads were simply a variation on the theme that Trump is a narcissist, a victimizer, sexual predator, race-baiting demagogue, tax dodger and a wannabe-authoritarian strong man who seems eager to trample on the Constitution.  In a way, Hillary Clinton’s campaign shamed people who supported Trump; Clinton’s campaign discipline gave off the impression that there was something wrong with you if you could vote for a man like Donald Trump. The Clinton campaign’s use of its vast ad budget to hammer away at Trump for being an ignorant Washington outsider ran out of steam. 

In terms of ad spending, Clinton dominated the airwaves. Advertising Analytics for NBC cites that Hillary for America, Clinton’s campaign, spent nearly $142 million dollars on TV and radio ads leading up to election day. Clinton’s campaign spent a large sum of money on advertising. Meanwhile, Kantar Media/CMAG for Bloomberg Analytics indicates Clinton’s spending could have been as high as $172 million dollars. In addition to Hillary for America’s spending, Super PACs and other outside support groups have spent an additional $103 million dollars. Combined, ad spending in support of the Clinton Campaign was three times more than the money spent on Trump’s ad campaign, which, ultimately, in the end didn’t work out in her favor. 

Some would argue that Clinton still won the popular vote, but you don’t win the presidency by getting the most votes, you have to win the majority of electoral votes. Hillary Clinton lost the White House, despite winning the popular vote, to Republican Donald Trump on the strength of about 100,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Clinton’s unexpected losses came in states in which she failed to air ads. The Clinton campaign aired three times as many ads as Trump and his supporters over the course of the general election. Despite that advantage, the Democrats left several key states essentially unprotected on the airwaves as the race ended. Clinton’s campaign and outside groups supporting it aired more television ads in Omaha during the closing weeks than in Michigan and Wisconsin combined. The Clinton campaign was planning for a blowout, they ran almost no ads in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Virginia. Clinton’s campaign relied too much on poll data. Polls showed Clinton had the upper hand in those swing states, thus Clinton’s campaign felt that they didn’t need to air ads in those states and felt confident enough to pull the ads from the airwaves. In fact, Justin Barasky, communications director for Priorities USA, pro-Clinton Super Pac group said, “We know, at the moment, these are tough states for Donald Trump and there isn’t as much of a need for us to air ads there.” Clinton’s campaign neglected the Rust Belt states, where the most electoral votes are, spending more effort on television advertising aimed at suburban swing voters, she tried to appeal to moderate Republican women and white-collar voters by showing how obnoxious Trump is, rather than on resonating with the working class and framing Trump as an out-of-touch billionaire who could not resonate with regular people’s struggles. 

The Trump Campaign: Donald J. Trump for President 

Like Clinton, Trump’s subject matter echoed Clinton’s character-based arguments and evoked fear and anger as primary emotions. Trump had been using the “Crooked Hillary” theme all year. Although Trump’s campaign strategy focused on denigrating his opponent’s character, unlike Hillary who stuck to rallying the base and attacking Trump’s character, Donald Trump focused on creating issue-based negative ads, which handed him a presidential victory. Trump’s campaign stayed true to the affective intelligence theory. Trump touched on policy issues that he knew would evoke an emotional response of fear, anger anxiety and overall concern from older and blue-collar whites, evangelical Christians, and non-urban voters who in polls have consistently expressed both the most economic pessimism and cultural unease about a changing America (See Figure 1). Trump rode the wave, casting himself as a workingman’s candidate virtually unopposed; he coordinated his campaign with external events of consequence so that he could benefit from the additional media coverage elected by the newsworthy event. Investing much of his ad resources in key statues such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina, which together has 82 electoral votes, he additionally aired ads in Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, California, and Colorado. Trump was unstoppable.   

Trump styled himself as a blunt-speaking champion of the blue-collar American. For example, Trump’s campaign released the “Deals” advertisement, that capitalized on the economic anxieties of the American public. “Today our jobs are gone. Factories are closed… Donald Trump knows business and he’ll fight for the American worker,” the narrator stated. Trump promised to renegotiate NAFTA and cut taxes, and bring jobs back to America, among other economic proposals. This triggered an emotional response from blue-collar workers, farmers, coal miners, auto workers, and the average working-class citizen. This triggered fear in what may have caused them to believe that without Trump as president, jobs would continue to become scarce. The Trump campaign recognized the need to maintain and grow support from blue-collar and union workers, particularly in swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, thus touching base on issues that optimized these individual’s self-interests, an affective intelligence theory tactic.

Trump also talked about the highly emotive topic of immigration and was able to connect, mobilize, and at the same time antagonize a large spectrum of people that felt threatened. In Trump’s first TV commercial of the general election “Two Americas: Immigration,” Trump masterfully paints a dichotomous image of the prospective Clinton administration versus that of the Trump administration. A narrator declared that “In Hillary Clinton’s America, the system stays rigged against Americans. Syrian refugees flood in. Illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes get to stay, collecting Social Security benefits, skipping the line….” In contrast, “Donald Trump’s America is secure. Terrorists and dangerous criminals kept out. The border secure. Our families safe….” In recent decades white Americans have been told that they will soon be the minority race in America, and most haven’t taken this information quite well.  When members of a historically dominant group feel threatened, they go through some interesting psychological twists and turns to make themselves feel okay again. First, they get nostalgic and try to protect the status quo however they can. Trump was able to gain support from these fearful and anxious individuals. In the ad, the narrator says “The system stays rigged against Americans. Syrian refugees flood in. Illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes get to stay. Collecting Social Security benefits, skipping the line. Our border open. It’s more of the same, but worse.”  

Donald Trump spent less on advertising than his competitor Clinton did; Trump leaned on free media instead. In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone’s screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices. Trump used provocative content to stoke social media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton. His bids received a boost from Facebook’s click model, effectively winning him more media for less money. The Trump campaign leveraged lookalike audiences by targeting likely Clinton voters and micro targeted people who were most likely to show up to vote for him. 

Trump’s campaign seeded the audience’s assembly line with content about Clinton that was engaging but dispiriting. By micro-targeting negative advertisements, Trump campaigns were more precisely able to reach a target population, increasing the persuasive influence of the negative ads.


Political advertisements attempt to have an impact on the way you view the politician and the issues they are for or against. The most common form of advertising politically is through programming on television. One popular strategy used in political ads nowadays is the incorporation of terror management theory to evoke fear in the viewers by what is being portrayed. A study by Niven found that voter turnout increased in a mayoral election among those who received negative campaign mail. In their study of the 1998 senatorial elections, Jackson and Carsey also attributed increased voter turnout to negative television advertisements and found that positive advertisements have no significant effect on turnout. For candidates who want voters to reevaluate their political decisions, or to take voters off their default mode, this side of the scholarly debate suggests this can be accomplished by fostering an emotional response in voters. Negative or attack advertisements and messages are one obvious manifestation of this goal and this was seen in the 2016 presidential election. Staying true to the affective intelligence theory, Trump strategically outperformed tone-deaf Clinton in advertising. There is no doubt that candidate Donald Trump was erratic, but Donald Trump the advertiser was a genius. Trump the advertiser was all for producing highly effective message disciplines for the audience. Trump aired a more typical number of policy-focused ads compared with past elections, whereas Hillary Clinton’s campaign ran TV ads that had less to do with policy than any other presidential candidate in the past four presidential races. The Clinton campaign overwhelmingly chose to focus on Trump’s personality and fitness for office, leaving very little room for discussion in advertising on the reasons why Clinton herself was the better choice, and leaving little room for her to advertise her policy goals/plans. 

Trump provided explicit policy-based contrasts, highlighting his strengths and Clinton’s weaknesses, a strategy that research suggests voters find helpful in decision-making.  Additionally, Trump’s campaign directed his negative advertisements accordingly; Trump’s campaign focused on micro-targeting negative advertisements.  Trump’s campaign was able to sow instability and feed the content to specific masses, tactics that helped propel Trump to victory.

These strategic differences may have meant that Clinton was more prone to voter backlash and did nothing to overcome the media’s lack of focus on Clinton’s policy knowledge, especially for residents of Michigan and Wisconsin, in particular, who were receiving policy-based (and specifically economically-focused) messaging from Trump. Clinton’s misallocation of funds (both hyper-targeting on local cable and advertising in non-traditional battlegrounds like Arizona rather than in the Midwest, for example), Clinton’s lack of an effective ad distribution strategy, and a lack of policy messaging in advertising hurt Clinton enough to the point where she lost to Trump by 76 electoral votes. It is evident then that negative ads are effective in that they do increase voter turnout or at least have some effect on the voter turnout rate. Presidential campaign ads are effective only if they evoke negativity through character-based ads and policy issues-based ads, when targeted at appropriate audiences.


Works Cited

Ansolabhere, Stephen and Shanto Iyengar. Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the Electorate. New York, NY: Free Press,1995.

Becker, Ernest. The Birth and Death of Meaning an Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man. Free Press, 1971

Broader, Ted. Campaigning for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Burke, B. L., Kosloff, S., & Landau, M. J. “Death Goes to the Polls: A Meta-Analysis of Mortality Salience Effects on Political Attitudes.” Political Psychology, 34 (2013), 183-200. 

Fernandez, Alexia. “Lies, Insults and Exaggerations: A U.S. Presidential Campaign Tradition.” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2016.

Fingerhut, Hannah. “Campaign Exposes Divisions Over Issues, Values and How Life Has Changed in the U.S.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. June 01, 2016. 

Finkel, Steven E., and John G. Geer. “A Spot Check: Casting Doubt on the Demobilizing Effect of Attack Advertising.” American Journal of Political Science 42.2 (1998): 573-95.

Fowler, Erika Franklin, Michael M. Franz, and Travis N. Ridout. Political Advertising in the United States. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2016.

Geer, John Gray. In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Jackson, Robert A., and Thomas M. Carsey. “U.S. Senate Campaigns, Negative Advertising, and Voter Mobilization in the 1998 Midterm Election.” Electoral Studies 26.1 (2007): 180-195.

Judis, John. “A Fascinating Psychological Experiment Could Explain Donald Trump’s Rise.” Ernest Becker Foundation. December 17, 2015. Accessed December 06, 2018.

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Packaging the Presidency. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1984. 

Krasno, Jonathan S. and Green, Donald P., “Do Televised Presidential Ads Increase Voter Turnout? Evidence from a Natural Experiment (December 15, 2008).” The Journal of Politics, 70.1 (2008), 245-261. 

Merica, Dan. “Clinton Campaign Not Planning to Air Ads in Virginia, Colorado Ahead of Election Day.” CNN. August 22, 2016.

Murray, Mark. “Clinton Maintains Nearly 3-to-1 Ad Spending Edge.”  NBC News.

Mutz, Diana. “Status Threat, Not Economic Hardship, Explains the 2016 Presidential Vote,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 2018, 115-19. 

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Voter Turnout in a Municipal Election.” Political Research Quarterly 59:2 (2006): 203-210.

Pearce, Adam. “Trump Has Spent a Fraction of What Clinton Has on Ads,” The New York Times.

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Washington Post Staff. “Donald Trump Announces a Presidential Bid.” The Washington Post, June 16, 2016.



Figure 1: How the Voters Viewed Major 2016 Issues


Advertisement Name  Content  Emotion
Role Models Character Sadness and Fear
Confessions of a Republican Character Fear
Someplace Character Anger
Unfit Character / Issue Fear
Absolutely Character Fear
Just One Character / Issue  Fear
Shirts Character Sadness
Hat Character / Issue Anger
Everything Character Anger; Sadness and Fear
Sacrifice Character Sadness and Anger
Agree Character Anger and Sadness
Low Opinion Character Anger and Sadness
Mirrors Character Fear
Investigation Character Fear
Silo Character / Issue Fear
Values Character Fear and Sadness
Respected Character Anger
Nevadans Issue Sadness
Investigation Character Fear


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