Incivility in politics is nothing new. Indeed, thanks to the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, we all know that Alexander Hamilton (then Secretary of the Treasury) and Aaron Burr (then Vice President of the United States) had a dual that resulted in Hamilton’s death. Fortunately, political incivility does not rise to that extreme very often. But a general dislike and disrespect for one’s political opponents appears to be on the rise. One particular example of this incivility at the elite level is name-calling. Name-calling is a method of disrespecting one’s foes most often associated with the playground, but with Donald Trump’s campaign and election in 2016 the power of name-calling became a common part of elite political discourse. Trump is a practiced name-caller. His labeling of Hillary Clinton as “Crooked” Hillary stuck, while “Sleepy” Joe never had quite the same success. As he runs to re-capture the White House in 2024, he is trying out new names for his primary opponents on a nearly weekly basis. But is name-calling a good political strategy? That is, does it help the candidate who engages in name-calling by reducing the public’s perception of their opponent? Unfortunately, extant research does not provide a clear answer.
In order to determine the effectiveness of name-calling as a political strategy, we have designed and implemented a survey experiment that asks respondent to rate fictitious statements made by political candidates about their opponents. The statements are presented as part of a fictitious AP news story (based on a real AP story from the 2019 Democratic primary campaign). We use fictitious names of candidates (both perpetrators and victims) with the treatment group seeing a statement where the name-calling candidate makes a statement about their primary opponent (the victim) with a pejorative (crooked or heartless) added before the perpetrating candidate uses the name of their opponent. The control group sees the exact same story, but without the name-calling added. Thus, both stories are exactly the same except for one word. We then ask the survey respondents to rate both candidates on a sliding scale from 1 to 100. If name-calling “works,” evaluations of the victim should be lower when the pejorative is used than when it is not.
Ultimately, our survey experiment includes 2016 individuals who were randomly assigned to either the treatment or control groups when reading two different fictitious AP news stories. We contracted with Dynata (an international consumer opinion company) to provide us with survey respondents in the U.S. The survey was designed and implemented using Qualtrics’ survey platform.
Results / Data
The results of the project were recently published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties. In sum, name-calling does not work as intended. We found no evidence that evaluations of victims were influenced by the use of a pejorative (crooked or heartless) by their opponent. However, we did find that name-calling can backfire on the perpetrator. In particular, when Democrats engaged in name-calling, both Republican and Democratic identifying respondents rated the name-caller lower than when no pejorative was used. But the same is not true when a Republican candidate engaged in name-calling. While it did not appear to help the candidate (i.e., reduce the rating of victim), neither Republican nor Democratic identifying respondents rated the Republican name-caller lower than when no pejorative was present.
Thus, a word of advice for Democratic candidates: Do not engage in name-calling. It will not help and may hurt.