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Friday, 1 September, 2000, 17:48 GMT 18:48 UK
Voters choose between 'heroes and villains'

"Hero" and "villain": Ken Livingstone and Frank Dobson
People vote for politicians as if they are soap opera characters or figures in a western, according to new research on American electors by psychologists in the US.

The victorious candidate is usually the one who succeeds in being seen as a "hero" while convincing voters his opponent is the "villain".

Negative campaigning can win votes if it manages to turn a rival into a hate figure, the research claimed. Information that was negative was more likely to alter voting intentions than positive information.

Voters turnout is likely to be boosted if one candidate is hated and another loved
But dirty tricks prove counterproductive if a candidate, in doing down an opponent, nevertheless made that opponent come across as no better or worse than themselves.

Researchers at Ohio State University, Columbus, found that voters set out with a positive attitude towards newcomers and unfamiliar candidates.

First impressions also make more of an impact than information received just before polling day. Advertising early in a campaign was more likely to be effective than later efforts to gain support, the researchers said.

Generally, voter turnout rose significantly if one of the candidates was particularly disliked.

Jon Krosnick, professor of psychology and political science at Ohio State University and co-author of the study, said: "A disliked candidate is seen as a threat, and that will be a motivation to go to the polls.

"But a threat alone isn't enough - people need to have a hero to vote for too, in order to inspire them to turn out on election day."

Turnout link to like and dislike

The research claimed that two well thought of candidates running against each other could have the effect of making voters who liked both of them stay at home.

"This goes against the conventional wisdom in political science, which says the important factor is how much difference there is between how much you like each candidate," said Professor Krosnick.

Similarly, voters were less likely to vote if they disliked both candidates, because neither would make them happy.

The results put negative campaigning in a new light, said Professor Krosnick: "If you want to make sure people who love you actually vote for you, it helps if you can make them hate your opponent."

The study was based on interviews with more than 5,000 Americans over the course of four US presidential elections from 1972 to 1988, and was part of a larger study into the psychology of voting involving data from seven presidential elections between 1972 and 1996, and more than 25,000 respondents.

British parallels?

As far as British elections go, obvious attempts to demonise opponents in recent years have frequently backfired.

At the 1997 election, the Conservatives faced criticism for having gone over the top with their "demon eyes" billboard posters attacking New Labour and Tony Blair.

Labour had its own similar experience, though, with this year's London mayoral election. Mr Blair and his party played a heavily negative, demonising campaign against maverick left-winger Ken Livingstone.

He remained ahead in the polls for the whole campaign and found it much easier to portray himself as ordinary Londoners' "hero". Labour's Frank Dobson, who came third, became viewed as the "villain".

The findings were released on Friday at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington DC.

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