Study says political ads grow nastier

On page two of the Express, I was greeted on this morning’s metro ride with this article:

“Study: Political Ads Grow Nastier.”

The article cites a recent study by Kantar Media/CMAG that claims that negativity in GOP primary TV ads has shot up a whopping 44% between 2008 and 2012, and claims “it is happening largely because of new rules governing campaign money.” Naturally, it must be Citizens United that has caused such a ruckus; it has, after all, been proven that the 2010 Supreme Court ruling will lead inevitably to negative ads, sovereign debt downgrades, rising drug abuse and the coming zombie apocalypse.

There does seem to be a methodological problem here though; many studies don’t count “compare/contrast ads” in the same category as purely negative “attack ads” but this one does, thereby inflating its own headline-grabbing claim. Ads in this study were considered negative “if they mentioned another Republican candidate,” and so combined any comparison of candidates with more vitriolic attack ads.

One could realistically attribute the apparent increase in negativity to the more fractured Republican party in this cycle: establishment types, libertarians, tea partiers, social conservatives and neoconservatives are all locking horns over issues amid a presidential field that no one seems to feel particularly positive about, a perception supported by both polls and the current delegate counts. In the way that entrepreneurs normally operate in any marketplace, PACs have seen the utility of buying ad time and providing voters with information that they respond to. If voter turnout drops in some primaries and PACs or candidates start to attribute it to their own negative ads, they can adjust accordingly back to positive ones and vice versa.

The article also inadvertently backs up the notion that attack ads tend to be more informative than “positive” ads: one photo shows a screen grab of Romney overlapped with a graph; another compares Newt and Obama with a link to, asking viewers to “check the facts” for themselves. Egads man! Ads that actually asks voters to inform themselves? This must be mentioned somewhere on the Mayan Calendar.

Naturally, when the print news criticizes some policy or agenda that a candidate supports, there are no howls of protest about “negativity” in the press, but when a candidate or PAC pays for something remotely critical we are treated to lamentations about the death of democracy.

Romney said at a campaign event in Keene, NH some weeks back that it was better for Republican primary voters to learn about a candidate’s weaknesses before they chose a nominee to challenge the incumbent president. Negative ads refuse to allow candidates to hide behind the banalities that are a common feature of presidential campaigns, forcing them to come out in the open and address their record.

How this is bad for democracy escapes me.




The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.