Humans have a psychological predisposition towards the negative: all things being equal, the bad conditions them more than the good. And this phenomenon is not alien to the growing personalization of politics, in which the character matters more, who the candidate is, the image of the leaders. This is what two researchers have verified when analyzing more than a hundred elections in 14 European democracies during the last six decades: the weight of the demonization of the rival leader increasingly determines the direction of the vote. Parties, campaigns, media and activists strengthen this phenomenon by focusing the message on how undesirable the opponent is, which also creates a climate that damages governance and the functioning of institutions.
Diego Garzia, from the University of Lausanne, has dedicated a good part of his career to researching the determining role of leaders in the behavior of the electorate. “Voters may be reasoning less in terms of choosing the best political alternative, but rather seeking to avoid the one they perceive as the worst,” he says. Garzia, who just showed it in a study. “Our findings confirm the existence of a solid and statistically significant relationship between the negative evaluations of the leaders and the choice of vote,” he points out in this work, carried out together with Frederico Ferreira da Silva, from the same university.
Voters may be reasoning less in terms of choosing the best political alternative, but rather seeking to avoid the one they perceive as the worst
Diego Garzia, University of Lausanne
Some possible explanations, the researcher points out, could be linked to the increase in negative campaigns, an increasingly uncivilized and confrontational political discourse and, especially, the growing polarization among the electorate. “If voters are stimulated with predominantly negative information about other parties, candidates and voters, that information will be more accessible to them and will have greater importance when casting the vote,” he summarizes. When in doubt, that mental shortcut is the clearest.
When analyzing the surveys in which the leaders of these 14 democracies – including Spain – were asked to value the leaders from 0 to 10, they were surprised that, on average, in the 2010s, the leaders scored around one and a half points for below what they were getting in the 1960s. Even more striking was the discovery that at first all leaders tended to approve, while today they generally all fall below 5. “Negative evaluations of leaders have become a lot more important over time, insofar as they are now as relevant as the positive evaluations of the leaders to explain the choice of vote ”, highlights the researcher. In other study Regarding the United States, the same authors point out that a third of the electorate votes “against” instead of “in favor” of a candidate.
Spain is a very prominent case in its data: the impact negative attitudes towards leaders have on voting choices is much stronger than in other countries. When conducting an additional analysis at the request of EL PAÍS, the researchers discovered that Spain obtains the highest score among the 14 countries in terms of negative personalization during the last two decades, but also positive. “Basically”, Garzia sums up, “we discovered that leaders matter a lot in Spain: they matter more than in other countries both in positive and negative terms”.
This behavior has negative consequences, he warns. “It was already debatable whether the decision based on attitudes towards the leaders was compatible with our democratic standards, but these concerns are even more justified if the citizens vote mainly against a certain candidate,” he says. For the political scientist Berta Barbet, from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, this dynamic is dangerous for the institutional functioning: “Dedicating oneself to generating antipathies is useful electorally, but it damages governance”.
If we dedicate ourselves to generating antipathies, it is useful electorally, but it hurts governance
Researcher Sandra León, from the Carlos III University, believes that this study connects perfectly with what is already known about the repercussions of leaders, “who are becoming increasingly important in the face of party brands.” “And it fits with the framework of affective polarization: above all we vote because the rejection of those who are not ours increases”, highlights León. And this, he indicates, also works for the leaders, because the vote is more determined by the rejection of the rival group.
For León, promoting that rejection of the other in the campaigns is effective in the electoral process, but it is a short-termism that for the parties becomes bread for today and hunger for tomorrow: “In fragmented environments like ours it limits you by running out of partners , makes it difficult to accept assignments and agreements, leaves leaders without margin, tied hands, because reaching an agreement with others is almost a betrayal ”.
According to Barbet, “the debate has become more negative, pending options that generate a greater sense of threat: because polarization implies believing that the rival is dangerous, not just that you don’t like him.” For her, negative messages tend to work better, because convincing that your rival is bad has more effect and the media and campaigns end up reacting to that. In a recent investigation by EL PAÍS on the Madrid elections, it was observed that Facebook groups on the left were the ones that most mentioned Isabel Díaz Ayuso (from the PP) and those on the right focused especially on Pablo Iglesias (from United We Can). Researchers at the University of Lausanne especially point to the emotional impact caused by televisions.