Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

2012 election crushes records for campaign advertising

Feb. 14, 2013, 9:57 a.m., Posted by Erika Fowler

As part of an effort to help more Americans engage in the 2012 election, Knight supported The Wesleyan Media Project to track and analyze all broadcast advertisements aired by or on behalf of federal and state election candidates in every media market in the country. Below, Erika Franklin Fowler, assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, blogs about the project

graphMore than 3 million campaign ads costing almost $2 billion aired in federal races in the 2012 elections, but aside from sheer volume, 2012 will also likely be remembered for its record-setting negativity: Three-quarters of all ads in the presidential race appealed to anger. Outside groups, such as super PACs, participated in record numbers this year, while the influence of political parties declined dramatically. Overall, a tremendous volume of advertising bombarded voters in a very small number of media markets, yet the results were essentially the status quo.

These are among the findings in two recently published articles that wrote along with my Wesleyan Media Project co-director, which provide a broad overview of the campaign ad landscape during the recent election cycle. In our paper, "Negative, Angry and Ubiquitous: Political Advertising in 2012,"  Travis N. Ridout and I quantify the record-pulverizing volume of advertising in 2012, and note trends in outside group involvement, advertising tone, emotional appeals, issues of focus and airing patterns. And in his article, “Interest Groups in Electoral Politics: 2012 in Context,” co-director Michael Franz puts into context the historic levels of advertising activity by outside groups in 2012, as well as the declining role of political parties in campaign advocacy. Both papers were published in The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research on Contemporary Politics (Volume 10, Issue 4).

Contrary to expectations, we found that the Obama campaign consistently out-advertised the Romney campaign by large margins throughout the election. Outside groups in the presidential race helped Romney by bringing him closer to parity but could not quite make up the difference, and the political parties played a relatively minor role in presidential advertising this year.

The Obama campaign generally spent its advertising dollars more efficiently because candidates—but not outside groups—qualify for the lowest airtime rates. Thus, Romney and his prolific outside group allies spent more money for fewer spots than did Obama and his allies.

We also examined the content and tone of campaign advertising. Consistent with anecdotal reports, the 2012 campaign ad battle was historically negative, with fully 64 percent of ads aired between June 1 and Election Day being purely negative (only mentioning an opponent). Moreover, three in four ads aired during the presidential general election made an appeal to anger. Other top emotional appeals were to fear, enthusiasm, sadness and pride.

In his paper, Franz demonstrates the explosion of spending by outside groups in the 2012 Republican presidential primary and the general election. In previous presidential primaries since 2000, fewer than 15 percent of all ads were aired by outside groups. In 2012, this share skyrocketed to nearly 60 percent. And during the general election, the Romney campaign’s meager ad buys (in comparison to Obama’s) were substantially bolstered by his outside group allies. Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads and Restore Our Future alone aired more than 210,000 pro-Romney ads, roughly equal in number to the Romney campaign’s ad airings.

In light of these developments, Franz suggests it's possible to view the network of outside groups as a series of "shadow" party committees, rising up to replace the traditional political party through coordinated efforts.

Given that 2012 turned out to be essentially a status quo election, some are questioning the effectiveness of the huge volume of advertising. Franz uses a natural experiment of sorts to quantify the effect of advertising on wooing voters. He compared ad totals for Obama and Romney in battleground media markets that extend into non-battleground states. This allows him to isolate the effect of ads on voters who are unlikely to see any other campaigning in the race.  Comparing counties with high and low Obama and Romney advantages to counties with few or no ads, he finds that ads had a significant impact on voters, though to a lesser degree than in the 2004 and 2008 elections.  That is, in places where Obama or Romney had more ads on the air, they received more votes, but the effect was small.

Despite the emergence of new and more sophisticated means of reaching voters through the Internet, the 2012 campaign clearly played out on television airwaves. In the first presidential election since the landmark Citizens United v. FEC case, many donors chose to support their favored candidate through outside groups, rather than direct contributions to the campaign. But given the weak airtime purchasing power of these groups, it remains to be seen if donors will continue to flock to them in future years.

Visit the Wesleyan Media Project to access the full text of these articles, as well as past press releases and additional information.