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(Last updated 8/25/00)

Embargoed until 1:30 p.m. EDT Friday, September 1, 2000


COLUMBUS, Ohio - It will take more to get Americans to the polls this Election Day than a presidential candidate they really like.

A new study suggests people will be more likely to vote if they actively dislike George Bush or Al Gore.

"People who have something to lose by not voting are the ones who will go out and vote," said Jon Krosnick, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology and political science at Ohio State University.

"A disliked candidate is seen as a threat, and that will be motivation to go to the polls. But a threat alone isn't enough - people need to have a hero to vote for, too, in order to inspire them to turn out on Election Day."

These results illuminate some of the issues concerning whether negative campaigning helps or hurts voter turnout, Krosnick said.

The study is based on nationwide survey data involving U.S. presidential elections during a 16-year period from 1972 to
1988. The surveys were conducted by the National Election Study and included face-to-face interviews with more than 5,000
Americans over the course of the four elections.

Krosnick presented the results September 1 in Washington at the annual meeting of the American Political Science

The findings showed that people who said they liked both candidates - even if they liked one significantly more than the other - were not as likely to vote as were those who liked one and disliked another.

"This goes against the conventional wisdom in political science, which says the important factor is how much difference there is between how much you like each candidate," Krosnick said. "But what we found makes more sense. If you like both candidates, there is little motivation to vote - you'll be happy no matter who wins."

Conversely, voters would be less likely to vote if they dislike both candidates, because they won't be happy no matter who wins.

Krosnick said the results put negative campaigning in a different light. Most candidates probably see negative campaigning as a way to persuade voters to vote for them. But what it really does is help ensure that your supporters go to the polls.

"If you're a candidate, there's only so much you can do to make people love you. But if you want to make sure people who love you actually vote for you, it helps if you can make them hate your opponent," he explained.

However, if there is so much negative campaigning that voters dislike both candidates, then the negativity will probably hurt turnout. "Turnout in this year's election will be high if there are large groups of voters who love Gore and hate Bush, or who love Bush and hate Gore. But we don't want a situation where everybody hates, or likes, both of them."

The analysis of voter turnout was part of a larger study that offers a new way of thinking about voter decision-making - a way that is more consistent with psychological theory than with reigning theories in political science, Krosnick said. The larger study involved NES data from seven presidential elections between 1972 and 1996 and more than 25,000 respondents.

"We found that voters form impressions about candidates the same way they do about everybody else: neighbors, family members and co-workers," Krosnick said. "Political scientists have assumed that the process of making a voting decision is different than any other decision in a person's life. But we're finding there are a lot of similarities. Our findings may be surprising to some political scientists, but they won't be a surprise to psychologists who study decision-making."

Some of the findings that fit with psychological theory:

  • First impressions count more than information learned just before Election Day. This means that the first ideas you develop about a candidate will influence your vote more than those you learn later. For candidates, this means that advertising early in the campaign probably has a bigger positive impact than later ads. "That's counter to the conventional wisdom of political consultants," Krosnick said.
  • Voters start with positive attitudes toward unknown candidates. Most researchers have assumed that people are neutral toward candidates in the beginning, but this study showed that voters have a slightly positive attitude even before they know anything about those who are running, Krosnick said. "Candidates can take advantage of the fact that they start the campaign on the positive side with most potential voters."
  • Negative information has more impact on voters than positive information. "People are moved more by candidates' failings and mistakes than by their successes and good qualities," he said. "This helps explain why negative campaign ads are so effective."
  • Less knowledgeable voters make their decisions in much the same way as do informed voters. "People use the same strategies for making decisions in all areas of life," Krosnick said. "You don't need special expertise in politics to make a voting decision."

Co-authors of the study were Allyson Holbrook of Ohio State, Penny Visser of Princeton University, Wendi Gardner of Northwestern University, and John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago. The research was conducted partly while Krosnick was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and supported by a National Science Foundation grant.


Contact: Jon Krosnick, (614) 292-3496; Krosnick@osu.edu
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu