Consider that in 2004, one of the most negative campaigns in modern times, turnout was up about 5 percentage points from 2000, and the public was more aware of what the major party candidates stood for than in 2000.Geer and Goldstein concede that not all negative ads are born equal: "Many negative ads unfairly, even scurrilously, isolate candidates' votes or statements." But as a general proposition, they contend that it's no more unfair to point out why you should dislike a particular candidate than it is to point out why you should dislike a particular brand of car or television set. And as long as it works — which is likely to be approximately forever — we might as well get used to it.
Part of the reason negative ads have this beneficial effect is that they are more substantive than positive ads. Our research shows negative ads are more likely to focus on issues, are more specific and contain many more facts than positive ads. They enhance political interest and familiarity with the candidates' qualifications more than positive ads, which, in turn, raises citizens' likelihood of voting. In short, negative ads are more likely than positive ads to foster the kind of engagement we all want from the American electorate.
One thing they might have added but didn't is that in most campaigns, both old and new, the biggest doses of negativity come from outside the campaign proper anyway. That was true in 1800, and we're seeing it again in the Obama/Clinton campaign, where the "3 am" ad is thin gruel indeed compared to the shoutfests that are going on between the rival camps of unofficial and semi-official supporters. Official campaigns can get rough — though, honestly, that's been only occasionally true of this one — but they're nothing compared to the blogosphere, the water cooler, and the email bomb.