Opinion: Daily Journal

Obama’s Attack Ad Strategy

Barack Obama and the Democrats waged the most negative campaign in recent memory, Mitt Romney and the Republicans spent their campaign cash less efficiently than the Democrats did, and the mainstream news media gave President Obama a strong wave of favorable coverage during the last week of the campaign.

These are not my personal opinions. They are the findings of an initial set of studies by independent groups. As analysts continue to collect and crunch the numbers from the 2012 election cycle, we’ll know even more about it than we know now. Still, the initial work is worthy of consideration:

• The Wesleyan Media Project, funded by two liberal grantmakers (the Knight Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund), tracked ad spending by the two major presidential campaigns as well as independent groups favoring Obama or Romney. The Project found that from June 1 to October 21, about 59 percent of ads sponsored by the Obama campaign were negative – dedicated entirely to attacked his opponent – while 14 percent were positive ads touting the president and 27 percent were contrast ads comparing the positions of the two candidates.

During the same period, 49 percent of the Romney campaign’s ads were negative, 20 percent were positive, and 30 percent were contrast. As for independent expenditures, 78 percent of Democrat-leaning ads and 89 percent of Republican-leaning ads were negative. Because independent expenditures played a larger role in the total mix for the Republicans than for the Democrats, it is reasonable to conclude that the Romney/GOP ad strategy was only somewhat less negative than the Obama/Democratic ad strategy was.

That having been said, comparing Obama’s 2012 campaign to that of the previous two is instructive. In his 2008 election campaign, only 43 percent of Obama’s ads were attacks on John McCain. In 2004, 55 percent of President George W. Bush’s ads were attacks on John Kerry.

• Right before Election Day, the Wesleyan Media Project released another set of data demonstrating that the total number of ads run in the presidential race had topped the 1 million mark and had risen 39 percent over the 2008 level and 41 percent over the 2004 level.

Because the Republicans relied heavily on independent expenditures to make up for President Obama’s advantage in hard money, they were forced to make less-efficient advertising buys. Under federal law, the campaigns themselves are entitled to preferential rates from broadcast stations. But independent groups buying time to boost their favorite candidates or criticize others buy their ad time at higher rates. Want to see the difference? During the last week in October, the Romney campaign spent $12.9 million to air about 20,000 ads while a pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, spent $13.4 million to air about 11,000 ads.

“Given the stiff competition for airtime in battleground states, and the resulting rise in the prices that outside group sponsors are paying, it is starting to dawn on political contributors that sending their money to these groups may not be the most efficient way to get their favored candidates elected,” said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “I suspect that contributors may reevaluate their giving patterns before 2016 rolls around.”


• The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism tracked and rated the mainstream media coverage of the presidential campaign. During the final week, the coverage was favorable to the president – 29 percent of stories were positive towards Obama, 19 percent were negative, and the rest were mixed. For Romney, 16 percent of the final-week stories were positive, 33 percent negative, and the rest mixed.

By comparison, the September coverage was also favorable to Obama (22 percent positive and 27 percent negative for him, 11 percent positive and 44 percent negative for Romney) while coverage during the first three weeks of October was a bit better for Romney (13 percent positive and 37 percent negative for Obama, 20 percent positive and 30 percent negative for Romney).

In short, the Obama campaign won a hard-fought, expensive contest with an expensive but cost-effective strategy of attack ads, turnout operations, and favorable media coverage. Hey, don’t argue with me – I’m just passing along the information.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.