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
11 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. John Masuo

    It's like being at the CIRCUS, all these mentally challenged Repubes, running around like Chickens with their Heads cut off....They are RUNNNING SCARED!!!!! And it's very entertaining...I can't believe that Blitzer really believes his party will come up on top! I caught a glimpse of bias when Blitzer has his buddy Repubes with him on CNN!!!!!

    May 3, 2012 05:40 pm at 5:40 pm |
  2. John Masuo

    I can't believe it's not butter!

    May 3, 2012 05:43 pm at 5:43 pm |
  3. Cindy

    These Republicans are even attacking their own. They go down the list demonizing the Republicans who have agreed with a Democrat. I am making a list and will make it a priority to vote against anyone with a negative ad.

    May 3, 2012 06:05 pm at 6:05 pm |
  4. Myviewis

    So will there be any negative ads of Michelle Obama's $2000 sundress and her very expensive wardrobe while people are standing in the unemployment line or taking a less paying job and exhausted their savings, given up their homes? Oh wait, Michelle has to wear top price clothing to hang out with the rich & famous, elite Hollywood stars.

    May 3, 2012 06:07 pm at 6:07 pm |
  5. cas

    Because they work....because over 70% of the time people are trashy and jumpy to conclusion.

    May 3, 2012 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  6. Sniffit

    "After a while, continuing to blame past Presidents for Obama's current failures just makes you look more and more foolish."

    1. There's a difference between "blaming" and explaining the factual underpinnings of our current fiscal problems.

    2. Really? We've been done blaming Bush for a while. Haven't you noticed that the blame falls squarely on the GOP congresscritters for their obstructionist "our number one priority is to make sure Obama is a one-term president" agenda, attacks on women's rights and freedoms instead of efforts to create jobs and economic stability and security, failure to do anything about banks and the housing market, infantile games of filibustering and "secret holds" in the Senate, causing the debt limit debacle by trying to hold it hostage in order to force the destruction of Medicare and SS, passing a nonsense budget that would increase the debt and deficits and destroy Medicare whle giving the rich more tax cuts and increasing military spending, all while claiming falselly to hold the fiscal responsibility high ground, etc. etc. etc.? We ARE done blamin Bush. We are blaming the GOP Congress now...and they've handed us a very convenient historical record in Conrgess with which to do so...all in exchange for the rope we kept handing them. Time to hang.

    May 3, 2012 06:52 pm at 6:52 pm |
  7. Larry L

    No surprise when Romney's fat-cats out-spend the other candidates at a more than 10 to 1 ratio, and Romney is known for dirty politics. Karl Rove naturally gravitated towards the Romney campaign when he realized he could run the "swift boat" lies without anybody in the campaign calling a halt to dishonorable behavior. It's what neo-cons are all about...

    May 3, 2012 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  8. Motley

    Did we really need a study to determine this??? The only thing in question was whether it was 70% or 80%

    Personally I think it is rare to find an ad not mudslinging or attacking,... I find the negative ads also make me negative of the canidate,.. though they all do it, so I tend to be negative on most canidates!!!

    May 3, 2012 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  9. Motley

    Almost all ads are negative,.. yet those with party bias will not see their side doing the attacking at all (as witnessed by some of the previous comments)

    Did we really need a study to determine this though???

    May 3, 2012 07:00 pm at 7:00 pm |
  10. Will

    99% of Romney's ads were NEGATIVE, because Romney really doesn't have ANYTHING positive to say!

    May 3, 2012 07:08 pm at 7:08 pm |
  11. Charity Works

    The data was gathered – why didn;t this article state it outright?

    Which side posted the most negative ads – or more positively, which side posted the most ads that uspported their candidate?

    We know the answer in our guts – and the data undoubtedly reveals it. So how come it's not in the article?

    May 3, 2012 07:19 pm at 7:19 pm |
  12. Dr Matrix

    Most people didn't think it was possible to elect a person of color 4 years ago, now they brought out the big guns so us white folk can take back the country. Sometimes it's embarassing to be a caucasian.

    May 3, 2012 08:03 pm at 8:03 pm |
  13. Mike

    Romney may be running for the presidency of the United States, but he's already the king of negativity and the queen of the flip-flop.

    This man will say or do anything to be president. He won the republican nomination, not by ideas, but by trashing his opponents endless and buying votes.

    May 3, 2012 08:14 pm at 8:14 pm |
  14. mikeinmn

    It's the new reality. Sucks.

    May 3, 2012 08:33 pm at 8:33 pm |
  15. GordonGecko

    99% of the Mormon's ads are negative

    May 3, 2012 08:34 pm at 8:34 pm |
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