Anger and Fear

Authors: Ewan Thompson, Joshua Meyer-Gutbrod (

Campaign rhetoric in American politics has been a chief concern of political scientists since Riker first published The Strategy of Rhetoric. Current literature argues that incumbents and challengers have differing considerations regarding campaign rhetoric, with incumbents stressing their record, while challengers are incentivized to attack incumbents and paint a negative portrayal of economic and social conditions.  However, little work has been done to analyze this dynamic within the structure of American federalism, which can place state level candidates as the party-in-power within a state but within the opposition party nationally. In this paper we theorize that state-level candidates that confront a similar position of power at both the state and national levels will exhibit more unified positive or negative messaging. However, candidates that find themselves in the minority party at only one level of government will face competing pressures to both advance a rhetoric of success while also painting a negative portrayal of policy outcomes at the other level. To test these hypotheses, we employ an innovative database of campaign website text from state legislative candidates from all 50 states during the period from 2018-2022. We employ a sentiment analysis, with a particular focus on negative, anxious, and fearful rhetoric, to determine the proportion of negativity used by candidates of the governing and opposition parties in each state legislature. The results will carry significant implications for our current understanding of the influence of nationalization in American politics as well as the role of negative partisanship and polarization in the states.