* Unprecedented amounts of money feeds 2012 election ads
* Level of negative ads trumps 2008, earlier televised years
By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON, Sept 26 The 2012 presidential race,
now entering its most intense phase, has already set records for
the number of ads and their negativity, according to experts.
Among the reasons: more money than ever to spend by a larger
number of spenders, like "Super PACs," which are outside groups
formally unaffiliated with campaigns.
Put together, the Republican and Democratic presidential
campaigns and about a dozen groups backstopping them have
invested almost $600 million in advertising, heavily
concentrated on just a handful of competitive states that hold
the key to victory this year, including Iowa, Ohio, Colorado,
Florida, Virginia, Nevada and, lately, Wisconsin.
The barrage is just getting started.
As of early September 2012, TV viewers in local markets had
seen 1.3 million political ads, according to a Sept. 13 article
in Advertising Age magazine by Elizabeth Wilner, who tracks
political ad spending at Kantar Media's CMAG.
By her calculation, there could be another 2.3 million
before the Nov. 6 election.
Campaigns and backers of both President Barack Obama, a
Democrat, and Mitt Romney, a Republican, are introducing close
to a video a day -- some for TV, some for the web. They are able
to react almost instantly to the racing news cycle, and their
ads reflect an overall feel of a contest marked by incessant
attacks and few constructive policy proposals.
In the past two weeks alone, Obama and Romney campaigns each
introduced at least a dozen new ads. By comparison, Ronald
Reagan aired 27 ads in his entire 1984 campaign, according to
John Geer, political science professor at Vanderbilt University
and a top expert on negative advertising.
"If you talk about the TV era, since 1952 forward, I think
2012 will go down at this point in time as the most negative on
the record," Geer said.
"You've got an incumbent with a mixed record, you've got a
challenger with a mixed record, the parties that are highly
polarized, and you have a lot of money -- the combination offers
a perfect cocktail for negativity."
The ads are not above getting personal. One Obama spot,
defending his record on trade with China, asks: "How can Mitt
Romney take on the cheaters, when he's taking their side?"
In a Romney ad released last week, a woman welcomes her
newborn daughter to the world, where her "share of Obama's debt
is over $50,000" and women struggle with high rates of poverty
"We dislike candidates now," said Michael Franz, who studies
political advertising at Bowdoin College in Maine. Instead of
being a "struggle of ideas," he said, "elections are now about
convincing people that the other guy is dangerous for America."
Negativity in political ads is nothing new, as research
continues to prove it does not deter voters and, Geer said,
often yields more substantial ads that provide context or hold
What's fanning the flames this year is the amount of cash
available, thanks in part to both campaigns foregoing public
financing with its spending limits and unlimited spending by
outside groups such as "super" political action committees or
tax-exempt advocacy organizations.
It is the costliest campaign cycle in history, with
presidential and congressional races widely forecast to attract
some $6 billion in spending.
GOING FOR THE KILL
Academic Wesleyan Media Project, co-chaired by Franz,
earlier this month reported that the 2012 campaign was more
negative than the presidential contest of 2008 and that more ads
were solely attack ads, those that mention only the opponent and
not the candidate on whose behalf the ad aired.
Pro-Romney spots, fed by conservative Super PACs and
non-profit groups, were "overwhelmingly negative," according to
the research. It found 72 percent of them focusing solely on
Obama and 13 percent contrasting the two candidates.
With pro-Obama spots, 46 percent were pure attacks on Romney
and a quarter offered a contrast.
Romney has honed in on Obama's record on economic recovery,
trying to link lagging job growth with anti-business attitudes,
excessive regulation and a timid attitude toward China.
One recent ad campaign accused Obama of undermining the coal
industry, important to the swing state of Ohio, for example.
American Crossroads, the Super PAC run by a veteran
Republican operative Karl Rove, echoes the message in an ad.
"Obama has made a lot of bad decisions. He treats us like we
are his enemy," says Bill Schams, introduced in the Crossroads
ad as running a business that's been in the family since 1949.
The anti-Romney ads focus largely on his wealth and his
background as a private equity executive, seeking to portray him
as not caring about nor understanding ordinary people.
Many of Obama's latest ads focus on the healthcare plan
proposed by Romney's vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan,
that would revamp the Medicare program for seniors.
Priorities USA Action, the Super PAC run by former Obama
aides, is responsible for perhaps the most memorable ad of the
race: the spot that insinuated that Bain Capital, the private
equity firm Romney used to run, had something to do with the
death of a woman from cancer.
The suggestion was based entirely on the fact that the
woman's husband, Joe Soptic, had lost his job at a steel plant
closed by Bain five years before her death.
The power of negative ads was showcased in North Carolina
earlier this year when Republican presidential hopeful Newt
Gingrich won the state's vote for his nomination after a
multimillion-dollar ad campaign by the Super PAC backing him
pounced against Romney.
Even more recently, Obama's allies at Priorities USA took
credit for some of Obama's resurgence in polls after its string
of anti-Bain ads.
Negative ads use "scare tactics," said Michael O'Brien, vice
president of broadcast sales at E.W. Scripps Company, "and it
works. The people who are undecided are impacted by it."