Do personal political attacks work?

In the Victorian state election campaign, Labor has been running some grubby ads attacking Liberal leader Ted Baillieu because a real estate firm he was involved with, Baillieu Knight Frank, sold schools closed during the Kennett era (Baillieu’s response is here). Baillieu wasn’t even in Parliament at the time, and the issue is so far as I can see completely irrelevant to how he would operate as Premier.

Perhaps one reason the parties are resorting to personal attacks (the Liberals are focusing on Steve Bracks’ broken promises, thought at least this refers to his record as Labor leader) is that their actual policies are hard to tell apart, if you delete the partisan references. Take these announcements in the last couple of days:

“***** will build a new $10 million veterans

10 thoughts on “Do personal political attacks work?

  1. It is interesting that in the US elections Americans are said to usually vote for the man not the party, but in the mideterm election they voted for the party (and the policy) rather than the man. Or, more precisely, against a policy and a party. I would say that at least at the moment the two parties in the US are more divided by real policy issues than in Australia.


  2. Overall, the US has a weaker party system than here, and weaker libel laws, both of which have contributed to the rise of mud-slinging. I think you are probably right that US politics is more polarised than here, which is partly a function of voluntary voting, which means that you need to mobilise your base more than appealing to people with weak ideological views.


  3. I read/heard somewhere that in the US, attack ads are used to depress the votes of your opponents. I think this was mentioned just before the recent mid-terms, and in the story I read it was said that some people thought that the revelation that George W. Bush had been caught drink-driving (from memory) a few days before the election depressed his vote a little.

    Perhaps the same is true here, although the compulsory nature of voting might make it more likely for attack ads to depress first preference votes rather than two party preferred, at a guess. Perhaps the votes for minor parties and independents would increase.


  4. Sacha;

    The interaction of instant runoff votes (ie preferential voting) and compulsory voting interact to reduce the incentives for mudslinging quite substantially.

    Whereas US electoral strategy is built around motivating your own voters and demoralising your opponent’s, Australian electoral strategy is built around capturing the median voter.

    This is because:

    1. Our system requires everyone to vote, increasing the proportion of median voters to fringe position voters, and
    2. Fringe position votes percolate through preferences to a major party anyhow, which means that major parties can safely ignore any fringe.

    Note that 2. breaks in optional preferential systems like Queensland’s, and without 1., the overall system becomes much less effective. This is why I support compulsory, exhaustive preferential voting schemes. It’s a loss of freedom in an absolute sense, but it acts as a centralising, normalising force on politics in this country.


  5. Jacques, I agree with your analysis. I wonder what the effect of personal attack ads in the Victorian compulsory voting and compulsory preferential system is? Perhaps political scientists could examine Qld and NSW state elections for any evidence about the impact of attack ads in compulsory voting OPV systems.


  6. Sacha;

    It’s not really my analysis. It’s my understanding of basic public choice and voting system theory.

    I would say of negative advertising that it can win elections. More correctly, it can deny median voters to the other party. It’s just not as necessary or effective in our system as it is in the US; and besides, Andrew has already noted our stricter defamation laws.

    Borrowing from psychology, I’d say that even if people hate attack ads, it still works on their thinking at some level. However if the pollies listened more closely to the shrinks, they have attack ads with lots of pictures of the opponent and a “boo track”, or perhaps some select vox pop. The opinions of others is a powerful psychological effect on the undecided.

    Still, I would also be interested in work on the effect of attack ads


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