It seems like political campaigns have gotten dirtier with each election cycle. How much lower is there for campaigns to go?
A lot lower, according to a new study conducted by Wesleyan University. The Wesleyan Media Project found that political advertising over the past two weeks was more negative than during the same period in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
In U.S. Senate races, 55 percent of ads aired over the last two weeks were negative, meaning the ad only criticized the opponent. Another 17.5 percent of Senate ads aired in the past two weeks were "contrast ads," or ads that mention both the opponent and the sponsor's favored candidate. Just 27.5 percent of the ads were positive. By comparison, ads for gubernatorial and House races over that period were more than 40 percent negative.
Ads for both House and Senate races have become increasingly negative since 2010. Between 2012 and 2014, the share of negative ads for gubernatorial campaigns jumped by 20 points—from 23.3 percent to 43.8 percent.
"So far the 2014 midterms are seeing increased volume and increased negativity over 2010, which is going to make citizens even less happy with the tone of the airwaves," Michael Franz, the Wesleyan Media Project's co-director, said. "Evidence from political science suggests, however, that citizens may be more informed as a result of the negativity."
The research backs that up. A 2007 analysis in the Journal of Politics found that viewers tend to remember negative ads better than positive ones. But just because they're memorable doesn't necessarily make them impactful—negative ads are no more likely to spur voters to the polls.
Nevertheless, candidates and outside groups continue to shell out for TV ads. Between August 29 and September 11, Democratic groups aired 34,000 ads in Senate races, compared to Republicans' 29,000 ads. The number of Senate ads run by both sides over the past two weeks presents a 27.5 percent increase from the same period in 2010. Democrats also outgunned Republicans on the House side, with pro-Democrat groups airing nearly twice as many ads as Republican groups.
Of course, negative campaigning is not limited to advertising. For months, groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have been inundating supporters with scorched-earth fundraising emails. The DCCC has fired off subject lines like, "DOOMED," "HORRIFYING," and "CRUSHING blow."
In recent weeks, the DCCC has pivoted to more openly negative tactics—mostly by cyberbullying House Speaker John Boehner. "Boehner OUT" a recent DCCC fundraising email read. Another recent fundraising email, from House Majority PAC, was headlined, "URGENT: Boehner's allies ATTACK". Even more to the point, the same group sent out another email titled "SAD BOEHNER," flanked by two weeping emoticons.
Modern political campaigns are less like a gentleman's duel and more like a grudge match. Consider this quote from Rocky II, in which Rocky's trainer, Mickey Goldmill, cautions Rocky about his rematch against Apollo Creed.
"This guy don't just wanna win, you know," Mickey tells him, "he wants to bury ya. He wants to humiliate ya. He wants to prove to the whole world that you was nothin' but some kind of a freak the first time out."
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