Study: Campaign ads much more negative than four years ago
Presidential campaign advertisements, including those produced by and about former House speaker Newt Gingrich, were the subject of a new study.
May 3rd, 2012
03:21 PM ET
6 years ago

Study: Campaign ads much more negative than four years ago

(CNN) - If you think the current race for the White House seems more negative than the 2008 presidential campaign, a new study indicates you're right.

According to a political advertising analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project, 70% of presidential campaign commercials that have run so far this cycle have been negative. That compares to less than one in ten ads that ran by this time four years ago that criticized an opponent.

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"One reason the campaign has been so negative is the skyrocketing involvement of interest groups, who have increased their activity by 1100 percent over four years ago" said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. "But we cannot attribute the negativity solely to outside groups. Even the candidates' own campaigns have taken a dramatic negative turn."

The study indicates that more than half (53%) of the ads put out by the various campaigns from the beginning of last year through April 22 have been negative, compared to just nine percent at this point in the 2008 election cycle. And 86% of the commercials put out by independent groups, such as super PACs, are negative, up from 25% four years ago.

And ads by the independent groups seem to be dominating broadcast and cable television. At this point in the 2008 cycle, more than 96% of all ads in the race for the White House came from the campaigns. This time around, the campaigns account for just 36% of the spots, with the outside groups responsible nearly 60% of the commercials. The remaining four percent of ads were put out by the political parties.

"Such levels of outside group involvement in a presidential primary campaign are unprecedented," said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. "This is truly historic. To see 60 percent of all ads in the race to-date sponsored by non-candidates is eye-popping."

According to the study, which used data from Kantar Media/Campaign Media Analysis Group, Crossroads GPS is the biggest spending on general election ads, dishing out $12.6 million to run nearly 17,000 spots in 47 television markets. Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group that backs GOP causes and candidates, along with American Crossroads, its affiliated super PAC, were co-founded by Karl Rove.

As a nonprofit, Crossroads GPS, like many of the other independent groups putting up ads so far this cycle, does not have to disclose its donors.

"The biggest difference between general and primary election ads so far is that the majority of general election airings and spending has come from groups that do not need to disclose their donors," said Michael M. Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. "That's a lot of money and airtime backed by undisclosed sources."

And timing appears to also be a contributing factor in the rise in negative ads.

"At this point in 2008, the Democratic primary was still on going. Whereas in April 2004, you had a president on soft political ground whose road to re-election involved utterly disqualifying his then-known challenger. The same holds for 2012, which explains the negative ads from the Obama camp. Only now, you also have a well-resourced cadre of super PACs and outside groups who are determined to blunt those attacks by launching their own," said CMAG Vice President Elizabeth Wilner.

Another highlight from the study: The Republican candidates relied heavily on the super PACs that supported them to run ads in their behalf during the campaign for the GOP nomination. According to the data, a majority of the ads in support of Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney came from the super PACs backing those candidates. Ron Paul was the least reliant on super PAC ads.

Also see:

Romney adviser left after being silenced, source says

Bachmann to endorse Romney

Pro-Romney super PAC back on the air

Filed under: 2012 • Ads
soundoff (65 Responses)
  1. Bortain

    It's all those corporate funds & labor union money being infused into the system since it was determined that corporations are people too.

    May 3, 2012 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  2. Bob

    wait, we are missing the bigger picture here. The big problem is we probably spent tax payers money researching this study.

    May 3, 2012 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  3. Foreverwar

    The party of Greed Over People have nothing but negetive ads. There really isn't a lot good to say about Mitt I suppose, he just doesn't connect with people. I've seen more authentic smiles in a JC Penny catalog.

    May 3, 2012 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  4. Gimmeabreak!

    Of course there's more negativity - with that snake, Obama, desperately trying to hold on to his "kingdom."

    May 3, 2012 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  5. vote the Tea Party OUT in 2012

    four years ago I don't think "Citizens United" even was around......nobody had even heard of the Koch Brothers and FoxNews was not really overly cfrazy about John McCain although they did love Sarah Palin but she was not at the top of the ticket.

    May 3, 2012 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  6. cajuntide

    Just 70% ? i would have thought it was alot higher.

    May 3, 2012 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  7. Wake up people

    What did you expect? The racists have gone crazy since President Obama was elected. In 2008 they underestimated the American people. This year the rethugs and tea baggers will return to a simpler time in history and do what they do best. Lie, lie, lie, scare and CHEAT. If President Obama loses, it will be because Americans were dumb enough to go with the GOP/baggers and because they suppressed voters. No one is excited about Mittens, he is simply the right color.

    OBAMA 2012!

    May 3, 2012 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  8. meaz23

    I left a pile of romney in the toilet this morning before I flushed it away.

    May 3, 2012 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  9. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Gingrich got his behind kicked big time and he still refuses to address his terrible loss to Mitt Romney. Newt is dillusional, he's not the candidate, he won't be debating Obama so he needs to stop talking like he's going to be debating Obama. Newts and sad case.

    May 3, 2012 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  10. statistics don't lie

    Only 70%? I thought the negativity was much higher than that. I don't think I've seen a single ad for the national elections that didn't include some kind of obnoxious comment or little dig. It doesn't matter which party, everyone is too busy trashing the other side to present any kind of positive plans or leadership.

    May 3, 2012 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  11. jim

    Do all of you who object to "negative" campaigning want candidates to keep silent about their opponents? They're not going to tell you anything positive about them, so what's left. Do you want simply to ignore any illegal or immoral actions of a contender? He isn't going to tell you about them himself. Negative campaigning is the only campaigning worth listening to.

    May 3, 2012 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  12. Sniffit

    "Study: Campaign ads much more negative than four years ago"

    That's beacuse, thanks to the GOP/Teatrolls and the MSM, our culture and political systems have been irreparably damaged by the past 4 years of GOP/Teatroll temper tantrum negativity and the MSM's uncontrollable lust for escalating, sensationalizing and perpetuating anything that is remotely controversial, such that negativity is not just the new norm, but a prerequisite for getting to the dance.

    May 3, 2012 04:40 pm at 4:40 pm |
  13. edog

    If anyone who says they HATE the way politics have gotten so bad, and they vote for the GOP, they have nothing but themselves to blame. If the GOP wins in November, it will only reinforce that fact that their strategy of "NO" and "No compromise" works. A vote for the GOP will perpetuate grid lock and America will be the worst off. Any party of no compromise must not be rewarded with a win in November. We must bring sanity back to Washington and that means we must all compromise to get big things done.

    May 3, 2012 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  14. DeeNYC

    Really needed a study to figure that out?

    May 3, 2012 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  15. Dave

    Hey CNN!

    I want a study to show what percentage of these campaign ads are funded by FOREIGN DONATIONS!

    May 3, 2012 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  16. CBR

    Wow. The American people already know that the campaign ads are far more negative. Hopefully, they will ignore the content and inform themselves by listening to the candidates and determining their platforms themselves.

    May 3, 2012 04:56 pm at 4:56 pm |
  17. Gimmeabreak!

    Vote out the gimme-gimme-gimme idiots. Vote in mature adults who know what personal responsibility is (e.g., Romney).

    May 3, 2012 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  18. Skeptic

    Actually, I haven't seen any presidential ads this election cycle.

    May 3, 2012 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  19. Todd in DC

    Gimmeabreak: nice try, but Obama hardly has any campaign ads out yet. Most of the negative ads are from the republican candidates hurled towards each other.

    But nice try, and thanks for trying to think.

    May 3, 2012 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  20. Todd in DC

    Swisscottage, of course most of the negative ads were made by conservatives. Most of ALL ads were made by conservatives. You do remember the REPUBLICAN primaries, right?

    Obama hasn't started seriously running yet.

    May 3, 2012 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  21. Rick

    Who would have ever thought. That's all they ever do is throw mud in their opponents face. They look like a bunch of third graders. Do you think they could focus on what they can do to fix all our problems instead of what the other guy can't do? We need to stop voting for anyone who runs a negative ad. That's all they ever do. It's not what I can do but what the other guy can't do. I haven't seen a positive ad in so long, I have don't know what one looks like.

    May 3, 2012 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  22. Rick

    The real problem the ads are negative is because the politicians running for office haven't a clue on how to fix any of our problems. they are just hoping that when the do get into office, they might, just might have a few ideas given to them by the politicians already there. Problem is though they are all old ideas and won't work because they didn't work last term. We need new blood and I mean all of them.

    May 3, 2012 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
  23. vote the Tea Party OUT in 2012

    if the negative ads were mostly true that would be one thing, but most especially if you attach Karl Rove's name to it are either downright lies or things taken out of context.

    May 3, 2012 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  24. DENNA

    Look for it to get real this time. The Republicans did not really believe that Barack Obama would be elected, but they were wrong. Look for them to go all in this time. You thought they were nasty liars before, just wait.

    May 3, 2012 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  25. maestra730

    More and more liberal whining. To the Democrats: your candidate for President is a liar and a fraud, and your main voter base is made up of more of the same. Lots to be proud of there. You can insult and ridicule the GOP all you want, but your guy has done absolutely nothing to help this country in 4 very long years. After a while, continuing to blame past Presidents for Obama's current failures just makes you look more and more foolish.

    May 3, 2012 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |
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