This U.S. election cycle has set some truly impressive benchmarks for negative campaign advertising. We had the creepy demon-wolf in sheep's clothing ad (an attack on Republican Senate primary candidate Tom Campbell in California). There was the infamous 30-second spot in Kentucky that asked this pertinent question about the state's Republican candidate for Senate: "Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol, and say his god was 'Aqua Buddha'?"
Erika Franklin Fowler, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, particularly likes the whole class of ads this year, coming from both sides of the aisle, playing off bipartisan fears over the rising power of China.
"Millionaire Pat Toomey, he's fighting for jobs ... in China," intoned an ad airing in Pennsylvania by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Maybe he ought to run for Senate ... in China."
Fully 9 percent of Democratic ads this year have mentioned the Asian country.
All of these commercials feed the familiar sense that this election has been the most negative ever (topping even the most negative election ever two years ago ... and two years before that). But this fall, there's actually some truth to the sentiment.
The Wesleyan Media Project, co-directed by Fowler, Bowdoin College professor Michael Franz and Washington State University professor Travis Ridout, released its latest analysis of the season's campaign ads on the eve of today's election. It turns out this has been the most negative congressional election in at least a decade.
The project coded a vast sample (60 percent of the 705,000 airings between Sept. 1 and Oct. 20) of the House and Senate ads running in markets across the country. They were categorized as promoting a candidate, attacking a candidate or contrasting two candidates.
In the analysis, 49.9 percent of Democratic spots this fall have been pure attack ads (compared with 27 percent of congressional ads in 2004). Meanwhile, 56 percent of Republican ads have been attack ads (twice the percentage from 2004).
The statistics over the past decade don't necessarily point to a worsening trend. Rather, this has just been a vitriolic year, with the campaign mirroring the negative mood of the country, the high stakes of this election and the large number of closely contested races.
"It's tough to say how it will go in 2012, but we can certainly say there are factors this cycle that have made for a particularly negative year," Fowler said. "Whether they'll be in play in 2012 is somewhat an open question."
While Democrats and Republicans this fall both pushed attack ads, Fowler was struck by their differing negative strategies (if anyone can find varying ways to be negative, it's politicians). Democrats were more likely to personally batter opponents, while Republicans were more likely to attack policy issues.
The Wesleyan Media Project's data doesn't go back far enough to say if this pattern generally holds for the parties in and out of power in any given election.
"But this strategy makes sense impressionistically," Fowler said. "The out party, especially in circumstances where the policy environment is unfavorable, is going to go after policy issues. And if the issue environment is unfavorable to the in party, you're going to look for other places to go with those negative critiques."
Such as any odd thing Rand Paul supposedly said in 1983.
Fowler and her colleagues aren't necessarily lamenting all this negativity. Evidence suggests that political ads do help educate voters uninformed on details as basic as the names and party affiliations of opposing candidates. But positive ads usually don't convey much in their platitudes about creating jobs, defending the country or promoting freedom — principles we could all probably agree upon.
Negative ads are where we learn about the differences between candidates, useful information for anyone who's still undecided heading to the polls today. In short, they may actually have more substance.
"This may be the most negative election cycle, but it also may be the one that features the most informed voters, and from a democratic theory perspective, that is something I think we'd prefer," Fowler said. "But there is one caveat I'd make to that: There does seem to be some evidence that coverage of negativity can have spillover effects on the perceived legitimacy of the system."
In other words, sometimes we throw up our hands at all the negativity and simply conclude every one of these guys is a bum.