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Do Campaign Ads Seem More Negative This Year? It's Not Just You

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If you thought the presidential primaries were extraordinarily negative, now there's statistical evidence that you were right.

A new analysis of TV ads finds that 70 percent of the messages were negative — a trend spearheaded by the heavily financed superPACs supporting the candidates. At this point in the 2008 election, 91 percent of TV ads were positive.

The analysis comes from the Wesleyan Media Project, which examines political ads on broadcast TV and national cable. The raw data come from Kantar Media.

One of the Wesleyan project's co-directors, Erika Franklin Fowler, a political scientist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, says that at this point in the 2008 cycle, 97 percent of the ads came from candidates. But this cycle, "60 percent of all ads are sponsored by interest groups, which is really, truly a historic number," Fowler says.

The shift follows the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling and a subsequent lower-court ruling, which encouraged outside groups to plunge into the presidential contest.

Fowler says that for the candidates, it's worked out great.

"As candidates, you do want to outsource some of the negativity, if you believe that there's going to be a backlash for going negative," Fowler says. "And there is some evidence in political science to suggest that the backlash will be a little less if the negative ad is sponsored by an interest group as opposed to being sponsored by a candidate."

The superPACs accounted for 83,000 primary-campaign ads, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. That's significant because superPACs have to disclose their donors.

But in the general-election campaign, groups that don't disclose their donors have already run more than 35,000 ads.

Bowdoin College government professor Michael Franz, another co-director of the Wesleyan project, says superPACs tend to get their money from people close to the candidate. But donors to the nondisclosing groups are different.

"They are not as explicitly tied to a candidate per se as they are to a particular party winning the White House," Franz says.

And he says these general-election donors have bigger agendas. "The stakes are a little higher, so not having to disclose donors becomes more valuable," he says.

So far in the general election, the top advertisers are President Obama's re-election campaign, the Democratic National Committee and two conservative groups, Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity.

The pro-Obama operation, which discloses its donors, has aired more than 20,000 ads so far. The two conservative groups, whose donors are anonymous, have run about 24,000.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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