July 1, 2022
Bill Shapard

The Nasty Secret About Negative Campaigning

Polling through a two-candidate election that turns negative is tough. Oklahoma's Republican primary for Attorney General this year was no different.

A week out from the GOP primary election, Gentner Drummond had a sizable lead over John O'Connor by nearly 29 points. The internal metrics of the poll showed Drummond besting O'Connor in all of the demographic subsets that matter in a Republican primary: voters over 55 years old, the somewhat and very conservative categories, every congressional district, and even in the Tulsa area where both candidates are from. On election day, Drummond did win but by less than two points, so what happened?

Several factors go into evaluating this outcome in comparison to the pre-election poll results.

First, all polls are a measurement of one point in time, in the case of our poll, one week out from the election, and most released polls of the race had similar results showing Drummond leading by double digits. We can surmise that O'Connor's internal campaign polling showed him behind as he would not have gone so severally negative as he did if the race was close or had him ahead. Most campaigns build their TV budgets from election day, meaning airtime is purchased out from election day based on the amount of money to spend, so polling, in many cases, won't capture the impact of negative campaigning within the last week if the last poll was conducted more than a week out.

Candidates, particularly those in just a two-candidate race, typically want to run the MOST negative commercials toward the end of the race. This is so it does not give their opponent time to craft a response ad to their negative attacks.

This is, however, also the nasty secret of negative campaigning. When a candidate goes negative in a political race, he or she will drive down the positives of his opponent and their vote percentage in the polls, but it also drives down their own positives and vote percentage. Why? Voters who may favor the candidate being attacked, but don't know them well, will be most affected by the negative ads. They may change their minds and decide not to vote in the race for either candidate, but they rarely switch over and decide to vote for the candidate doing the attacking. The ads can also adversely affect the soft supporters of the candidate running the negative ads as well, because voters usually don't like negative campaigning and will penalize candidates who do.

You would think that candidates would then decide NOT to go negative in their race, but they still do because, under certain conditions, negative campaigning works, and the environment was right for this race.

Negative campaigning happens mostly in two-candidate races where the votes have nowhere to go. A good example of where votes can go is the recent Pennsylvania U.S. Senate GOP primary race that was won by Mehmet Oz. In a multi-candidate field, Oz and chief opponent David McCormick both went negative in their campaigns, and when they did, turned-off voters trended toward the distant third candidate, Kathy Barnette, who almost caught both of them by election day.

There were some substantially under-funded negative ads in the U.S. Senate race to replace Jim Inhofe directed at T.W. Shannon, but only because he was the current second in the race and the other trailing candidates wanted to try and make the second spot in what polls showed would be a run-off election of the top two vote getters. It is important to note that results for this race did not differ much from the pre-election polls released.

In the O'Connor-Drummond race however, O'Connor took the chance to go negative knowing turn-off voters had no place to go, but that the attacks would end up benefiting him more than Drummond. Why? Our polling showed that 34 percent of voters were still undecided, meaning if they wanted to support Drummond they would have already. Drummond had run in the last attorney general election and just barely lost to Mike Hunter. O'Connor was relatively unknown when Governor Stitt announced him as Hunter's replacement when Hunter resigned.

Suddenly, the roles were reversed. The new incumbent, John O'Connor, was the least known in the race, which isn't typical, and Drummond was the more well-known from a prior election and really wasn't seen as the challenger but the front-runner in the race. In typical races, the incumbent is the front-runner and the undecided voters in pre-election polls break at a higher rate for the challenger, who in this case was O'Connor.

O'Connor also had the funding to go negative, being the incumbent with the ability to raise monies, and most challengers, if not self-financing, typically don't.

From the election outcome, it would appear that O'Connor was able to capture nearly all of the remaining undecided voters, who probably were prior Hunter voters still looking for a candidate, by going negative against Drummond. But Drummond held on to his base which knew him from four years ago and was unaffected by O'Connor's negative ads but was also able to grow his support just enough to ultimately win the election.

Voters may not want to hear this, but sometimes negative campaigning works and can change the course of the race once the last pre-election poll is released.

Bill Shapard
About the Author

Bill Shapard

Bill is the founder of SoonerPoll.com and ShapardResearch, a full service market research firm based in Oklahoma City. Bill began his career in polling after working on major campaigns for both Republicans and Democrats in Oklahoma from 1996 until founding SoonerPoll in 2004.