Midterm election most negative ever, study says

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Adding to the discussion of violent rhetoric among politicians and the media this week, a study released Wednesday says that the 2010 midterm election was one of the most negative elections ever.

In the study, based on data collected in the Wesleyan Media Project, the successor of the Wisconsin Media Project, Erika Franklin Fowler and Travis N. Rideout examined 4,576 gubernatorial, House, and Senate ads aired in the 2010 campaign.

The study, entitled “Advertising Trends in 2010,” found that the “tone” of campaign ads was overwhelmingly more negative than in previous election cycles. Dividing ads into the categories of attack ads, promotional ads, and contrast ads (those which compared two candidates), the study found that 53.5 percent of campaign ads were attack ads. Republicans were on the offensive slightly more than Democrats, with 56.8 percent of all Republican ads being attack ads, compared to 52.5 percent of Democrat ads.

“Party-sponsored ads were particularly negative,” according to the paper, “with 96 percent of airings being pure attack ads.” Independent groups, whose role in elections was newly highlighted after the Citizens United court case permitted them not to disclose their donors, were only slightly less negative, with 87.2 percent of the ads they ran being negative. Attack ads only comprised 36.1 percent of candidates’ ads, however.

Commenting on this trend, Fowler and Rideout note that, “Allowing candidates to remain above the fray (at least relatively) and letting others do the dirty work is not something new, but it was certainly pronounced in 2010.”

Combined with the increased number of ads, the authors of the paper note that this election was more negative than others in terms of the sheer number of negative ads, as well as by the percentage of negative ads out of the total.

Nonetheless, the paper suggests that the increased negativity in ads could be seen as a positive. Citing other studies, the authors write that “negative ads are actually more likely to talk about policy issues, and thus negative ads may be informative ads. Negative ads may also raise the stakes, motivating people to get out and vote.”

Due to the heightened media scrutiny of such ads, the authors pointed out that there was “amplification of negativity through media,” and that as such, the public likely perceived the campaign to be even more negative than it actually was.

“Coverage of attacks as a central strategy of campaigns will only have increased the extent to which citizens perceive the election to be negative above and beyond the ‘objective’ levels as measured through ads alone,” they write.

The increase in negativity, the authors point out, citing another study, could ultimately increase voter cynicism: “[E]xposure to negativity is likely to increase cynicism, especially among nonpartisans…precisely those individuals both parties are attempting to court.”