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Beyond Negativity: The Effects of Incivility on the Electorate


  • We would like to thank Time-Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS) for funding the fieldwork for this project and the Dartmouth Rockefeller Center for supplementary funding. Caitlin Noel Sause and Daniel J. Mahoney have our gratitude for their outstanding research assistance to this project. We would also like to thank Eric Bucy, William Jacoby, Diana Mutz, Lynn Vavreck, the Indiana University Political Communication Colloquium, the three anonymous TESS experiment proposal reviewers, and the three anonymous referees for AJPS for support and guidance on this work.

Deborah Jordan Brooks is assistant professor of government, Dartmouth College, 6108 Silsby Hall, Hanover, NH 03755 ( John G. Geer is professor of political science, Department of Political Science, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37235 (


There is much concern among pundits and political observers that incivility undermines our electoral process. Yet we have little evidence that actually documents whether incivility has such pernicious effects. This article seeks to advance our understanding of the influence of incivility on the electorate. We argue that three dimensions are central to understanding both the perceptions and effects of different types of campaign messages: tone (negative versus positive); civility (civil versus uncivil); and focus (issue versus trait-based message content). Using an experimental manipulation on a large national sample that examines these three dimensions, we find that uncivil attacks in campaigns do not appear to be as worrisome as its detractors fear. While uncivil messages in general—and uncivil trait-based messages in particular—are usually seen by the public as being less fair, less informative, and less important than both their civil negative and positive counterparts, they are no more likely to lead to detrimental effects among the public. In fact, incivility appears to have some modest positive consequences for the political engagement of the electorate. These findings are important, since attacks and counterattacks will continue to shape the American political landscape.