The Danish 2011 national election campaign was allegedly characterized by the toughest political rhetoric ever in contemporary Danish politics. The political parties and the candidates apparently decided to “go negative” to a greater extent than usually. But was the 2011 campaign rhetoric actually the most negative in modern history? We seek the answer by means of quantitative content analysis of parties’ newspaper ads, party leaders’ letters to the editor and statements in party leader debates. We first compare the 2011 campaign with the five preceding campaigns and conclude that it was indeed the least negative of them all. We then compare the parties’ communication and the media coverage of the campaign to discover that the media strongly – and increasingly – emphasize the parties’ negative campaign messages relative to the positive messages. In sum: Danish parties were not especially prone to engage in negative campaigning in the 2011 election, but the media made the parties look more negative than in earlier campaigns.
Appendix – Coding Categories and Empirical Examples
Positive, politics: “We want top notch public transportation that can motivate people to ride busses and trains, but we do not want to force the Danes” (Per Stig Møller, Conservative People’s Party, Berlingske, September 11, 2011). Per Stig Møller clarifies what type of policy the Conservatives favor.
Positive, person: “I was interested in social justice – that’s why I became a socialist” (Villy Søvndal, Socialist People’s Party, TV2’s final party leader debate, 2011). Villy Søvndal draws attention to his own personal values in the form of social justice.
Negative, person: “If he (Villy Søvndal) becomes Secretary of State, the other countries will quickly stop listening to him when they find out that he can’t control his polemic fantasies” (Per Stig Møller, Berlingske, September 13, 2011). Per Stig Møller here talks about another politician and this candidate’s ability to control his imagination.
Negative, politics: “S-SF [Social Democrats-Socialist People’s Party] want to build a Berlin Wall around Copenhagen to be completed in 2014. After that, a regular commuter will have to pay DKK 11,000 extra per year to go to work in the city” (Anders Samuelsen, Liberal Alliance, newspaper add, 2011). Anders Samuelsen blatantly focuses on other parties and is clearly talking about one of their policy proposals.
Ambiguous tone, politics: “As far as the sabbatical schemes, we do not accept mandatory refilling, which has also been proposed by the Liberals and the Conservatives” (The Christian People’s Party’s presentation program, 1994). The party states its position on the sabbatical schemes and criticizes the Liberal and Conservative positions on the matter. However, the message cannot be divided into a positive and a negative part since neither makes sense on its own.
Positive, ambiguous focus: “In a very informal conversation with a journalist from the newspaper, I tried, to the best of my ability, to explain why I had not given up faith in progress for the Social Democrats at the election despite depressing polls and what I thought we could do to reach important but yet undecided voters” (Svend Auken, Social Democrat, Jyllands-Posten, February 1, 2005). Svend Auken talks about himself and his party, but it is not clear whether he is talking about his own indomitable spirit or the party’s strategy.
Ambiguous tone, person: “Politics is about more than entering contracts and being in constant sync with opinion polls. It is also about courage and leadership; courage to introduce a vision to the voters; and leadership to implement it” (Naser Khader, Social Liberal, Berlingske Tidende, January 19, 2005). Naser Khader emphasizes his own courage and his party’s will to leadership and talks about other things than concern concrete political content. The statement is a barely concealed reference to the bourgeois government, which is basically exposed as populists.
Negative, ambiguous focus: “I’m sure I know best what I know and I also know a little bit about society, Villy Søvndal – you’re not the only one who does” (Pia Kjærsgaard, Danish People’s Party, DR’s final party leader debate, 2011). Pia Kjærsgaard talks about her adversary, Villy Søvndal, but it is unclear whether she is referring to his political standpoint or his personality.
Residual category: “Globalization is nothing new. From my office I have a view of the lovely Eigtveds Pakhus, which was built in the mid-1700s to support the thriving foreign trade” (Per Stig Møller, Conservative People’s Party, Jyllands-Posten, January 21, 2005). Per Stig Møller outlines historical conditions in his letter to the editor about his position on globalization and growth. However, they say nothing about his or others’ political standpoint or character. This type of messages are excluded from the analyses.
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