« Negative » personalization: party leaders and party strategy


Scott Pruysers, University of Calgary
William Cross, Carleton University

The Story

Political parties are increasingly going negative in their campaign advertising and electoral messaging. At the same time, party leaders and candidates are becoming increasingly relevant to considerations of vote choice and to the electoral success of political parties. There is an increasing trend in recent decades towards more candidate-centered politics, individualized local campaigns and a personalization of politics more generally. These trends point to changing electoral and political norms in which the centrality of individual actors has increased while emphasis on the political party has declined. In this sense, we are particularly interested in the targets of negative campaigning, especially from the perspective of personalization. Is it opposing political parties or their leaders who are targeted in routine election campaign communication? Our central contribution is an examination of the inter-party dynamics of campaign personalization and the development of a new concept: negative personalization. We define negative personalization as an emphasis on opposing party leaders in campaign communication more so than on the parties that they lead. In adopting this approach we question whether parties play a role in personalization by negatively personalizing their opponents. In particular, we hypothesize that negative campaign personalization is a common feature of election campaigns and that this negativity is targeted at unpopular leaders more so than popular ones.

The Data

Drawing on data from two recent elections (2011 and 2014) in the province of Ontario, Canada’s largest province, we provide a preliminary empirical look at the dynamics of negative personalization in election campaign material. We do so by examining 53 television advertisements as well as more than 350 party press releases in order to gauge the target of negative party messaging. Additionally, we take a closer look at the campaign dynamics that shaped negative personalization during the 2011 and 2014 Ontario provincial elections.

The Results

First, we provide compelling – albeit preliminary – evidence to demonstrate that negative personalization is a common feature of contemporary election campaigns. Parties routinely attack opposing party leaders in addition to the parties that they lead. In fact, our analysis of the 2011 and 2014 provincial elections in Ontario demonstrate that both television advertisements and press releases are significantly more likely to mention an opposing party leader than an opposing party. This is particularly evident in television advertising where more than half of all campaign ads targeted an opposing party leader compared to only 15% that mentioned an opposing party. The predominance of negative personalization in television advertising is consistent with the broader personalization literature, which has noted the ease with which leaders, or opposing leaders in our case, can be pictured on screen and the impact that these images can have on voter perceptions.

Second, we find clear evidence that negative personalization is indeed a calculated decision. Parties make strategic use of their campaign messaging and in this regard attack their opponents where they are the weakest: party leaders who are popular experience the least negative personalization while relatively unpopular leaders experience the most. This helps to explain why the New Democrat leader escaped negative personalization in 2011 and 2014 while the PC leader did not. It also explains why the Liberal leader was subject to more negative personalization in 2011 than his more popular successor in 2014. Furthermore, an examination of the dynamics of negative personalization over the course of the 2014 Ontario election campaign reveals that the Progressive Conservative strategy responded to shifting public opinion and targeted the Liberal leader the most when her approval was lowest.


While the conclusions presented here need to be tested in other cases before they can be generalized beyond this particular analysis, this note does offer the first theoretical and empirical look at the concept of negative personalization as well as provide suggestions for future research.




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