Negative Ads: A Shift in Tone for the 2012 Campaign

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With only 16 weeks until the November election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are on track to fuel one of most negative presidential campaigns in recent history — whether voters want it or not. According to Kantar Media, which tracks political advertising, 89% of Obama’s ads in recent weeks featured an anti-Romney message, while 94% of Romney’s ads critiqued Obama.

Past campaigns have featured their fair share of punches, but 2012 is setting an unprecedented tone. After Obama suggested Romney might be a potential felon last week, the two candidates ratcheted up their rhetoric. Romney countered by calling the attacks on his tenure at Bain “reckless,” “absurd,” and “beneath the dignity of the presidency.” In an interview with ABC News, Romney demanded an apology: “He sure as heck ought to say that he’s sorry for the kinds of attacks that are coming from his team.”

Both campaigns have also released a slew of new attack ads, including two of the most hard-hitting spots to date:

Romney’s ad is like the Inception of attack videos: He calls out Obama for using negative ads… within a negative ad of his very own. It opens with Obama delivering an idealistic speech to a Denver audience at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. “If you don’t have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare voters,” he says. “If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone to run from.” Meanwhile, headlines cut across the screen, such as one from Politico that reads: “Obama Plan: Destroy Romney.”

Team Obama hit right back with another bout of Bain attacks. Their latest ad is set to Romney’s out-of-tune rendition of “America the Beautiful,” and flashes quotes from news organizations accusing Romney of outsourcing jobs to Mexico, China, India and storing his money in off-shore accounts.

These two ads are only a small sampling of the increasing negativity that voters are seeing on their TV screens. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, in the spring of 2008, fewer than 1 in 10 presidential election ads were negative. During the same period this year, negative spots accounted for a staggering 7 out of 10 ads from Romney and Obama.