With a flood of outside money unleashed by the loosening of campaign finance restrictions since 2008, a new study shows that spending on campaign advertisements has risen to unprecedented levels and that the nature of the ads will make this year the most expensive and negatively-charged election in the history of the United States.
“When all is said and done, 2012 will go down as a record pulverizing year for political advertising,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “We’ve already surpassed the total number of presidential ads aired during the entire 2008 campaign—and we still have two weeks to go before Election Day. What is especially striking is that the ads are concentrated on fewer markets than 2008, meaning that a smaller number of Americans have witnessed the onslaught of messages in the race for the White House.”
The examination by the group also broke down ad spending by party, with Republican leaning groups showing the most significant jumps. "Examining just the first three weeks of October, Democratic-leaning groups are estimated to have spent 438 percent more on advertising than they did four years ago," the report said. That huge increase, however, was pummeled by Republican-leaning groups who increased their spending by a whopping 954 percent. "In just the past three weeks, pro-Romney groups have spent over $47 million on television advertising. This translates into a $10 million advantage in ad spending by all Republican sponsors over all Democratic sponsors during the past three weeks."
Despite the overall spending advantage, however, the report found that the Obama campaign was actually airing more ads than Romney. Two possible reasons for this were given. The first, was that the Romney campaign has been saving money for a final "media push" in the last two weeks of the campaign. The other, more reflected in the reality of existing campaign finance laws, is that because Obama's spending is coming through its own campaign—which receives more favorable ad rates than those given to outside Super PACs or 501C-4 organizations that make up the bulk of the pro-Romney spending—Obama can spend less for more ads.
“One reason Obama has been able to win the air war in most media markets is that his campaign is funding most of its own advertising, which entitles his campaign to the lowest rate charged by local television stations,” explained Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “By contrast, many ads supporting Romney are paid for by outside groups, which must pay whatever the market will bear to get their ads on the air.”
Key excerpts from the Wesleyan Media Project's report follow:
Table 3 shows the top 15 sponsors of ads in the presidential race since October 1. Obama continues to dominate the air war, having aired $65 million in ads to Romney’s $30 million. Obama is also on the air in seven more markets than Romney. American Crossroads is the third most active spender, with $28 million for over 26,000 ads. The difference in rates that candidates and groups pay for ads is somewhat apparent in the contrast between the Romney campaign ads and the American Crossroads ads. Both spent about the same amount in the last three weeks, but Romney aired 16,000 more ads. (Other factors can account for some of this difference too, including the time of day on which ads ran and average price per ad in different media markets.)
Priorities USA was the fourth most active spender in the last three weeks, but this was the only pro-Obama group in the top 10. Planned Parenthood (which received an endorsement of sorts by Obama in the second debate, when he touted their contraceptive services and educational outreach) has spent over $1.5 million on 1,270 pro-Obama ads in the last three weeks.
Table 3: Top Spenders in Presidential Ad Race (October 1-21)
Table 4 expands the time frame to include the full general election. Obama’s campaign has spent over $238 million, targeting 62 markets with over 460,000 ads. Crossroads GPS and American Crossroads alone have combined to spend nearly the same as the Romney campaign on ads since he secured the nomination, though their ad totals are about 45,000 fewer than Romney. Restore Our Future, which is Romney’s super PAC, has spent over $42 million since the end of April.
Table 4: Top Spenders in Presidential Ad Race (General Election)
Tone of Presidential Race is Very Negative
One of the dominant features of the 2012 election has been the increase in negativity. This is apparent when you break down tone by sponsor over different points in the presidential general election. Table 5 shows tone of ads by candidates and outside groups in the first three weeks of October in 2012.
In recent weeks, the Romney campaign has emphasized contrast ads—those that mention both candidates. Fully 52.1 percent of ads sponsored by the Romney campaign in October were contrast ads. Only 11 percent of Romney ads in the past three weeks have been positive (mentioning only the sponsoring candidate). The Obama compaign has been even more negative than the Romney campaign. Seventy-three percent of ads sponsored by the Obama campaign since October 1 have been negative (mentioning only Romney), with only 6.3 purely positive. Furthermore, pro-Romney attacks have almost universally focused on policy (96 percent) whereas the pro-Obama attacks have been using a mix of policy focused critiques (56 percent) and a combination of policy and personally focused critiques (44 percent).
Table 5: Tone of Presidential Race by Sponsor, 2012 (October 1-21)
Table 6 compares the tone of advertising in the 2012 general election with the tone in 2004 and 2008. Data are shown for the June 1 to October 21 period. Percentage-wise, the Obama campaign in 2012 has been the most negative candidate campaign in the past three election cycles, barely eclipsing the 2004 Bush campaign in the percent of negative ads aired. (Totals for McCain in 2008 and both candidates in 2004 include spots coordinated with the party committees. These candidates relied heavily on party ads, while Obama and Romney have not. See again Table 1.)
Table 6: Tone of Presidential Race by Sponsor, 2000-2012 (June 1-October 21)*