The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why do negative political fundraising appeals actually work?

Dark clouds are seen behind the U.S. Capitol as a recent storm moves through the area. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

If you are a recipient of Democrats’ campaign donation solicitation e-mails you’d be right to assume the world is nearing its end.

But no, it’s just the end of the last quarter before Election Day.

With Democrats incapable of taking back the House and at risk of losing the Senate, the campaign committees have adopted a Chicken Little approach to fundraising. One message from the Democratic Governors Association even threatened a “Dem-pocalypse.” E-mail after e-mail foretells terrible outcomes that can only be avoided if you open up your checkbook immediately.

According to our colleague Ed O’Keefe, the doomsday e-mails are working. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)  has outraised its GOP counterpart by roughly $33 million this cycle, in part due to online contributions from the e-mails.

But why do they work?

We reached out to several psychologists to see what this tells us about the human psyche. In short, we’re a negatively inspired bunch.

“A variety of research has long shown that people are far more likely to take action to avoid negative events than to produce positive ones,” said Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine. “Loss is simply more impactful than gain. Loss can even cause trauma, which can permanently alter one’s life; there is no equivalent for gain. People know this intuitively, and so do the campaign managers and others whose job it is to manipulate the masses.”

University of Nebraska political science and psychology professor Ingrid Haas agreed that negative emotions are “very motivating” … “so something like anger might be most effective for getting people to take action or donate money.”

But Haas said one way to rouse people with positive feelings is to use messages of “hope.” (Remember Obama 2008?) It’s difficult to sell a message that everything is great, so join the effort to help it stay great. But telling people that things aren’t as great as they could be, but there’s hope for the future could spur action, she said.

It’s all about creating an emotional impact, said John Rooney, professor of psychology at La Salle University. People tend to be motivated more by how they’re feeling rather than by “their intellect,” he said. Rooney believes it’s less about the tone of the message and more about whether it will arouse emotions.

But Democrats have taken the negative route, warning of dire outcomes and preying on their supporters’ disdain for Republicans in Congress. The Republicans do it too, but Democrats have really embraced their underdog status, going so far as to suggest “all hope is lost” unless…

Gordon Coonfield, an expert in pop culture communications at Villanova University, said the tactic works because people are inspired by a shared common enemy.

“The appeal of such calls is decidedly negative, and it plays on peoples’ fears and their sense of vulnerability,” he said. “The more vulnerable they feel and the more fearful, the more likely they will be to act in concert to ameliorate those feelings.”

So maybe the e-mail we got from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi Tuesday night with the subject line: “” will succeed in getting the Democrats to their quarter fundraising goal? If not that one, then definitely the one an hour later from the DCCC with the ominous subject line: “Terrible News” that warns, “if we can’t fight these new Republican attacks, our hopes of winning control of Congress will end TONIGHT.”