The Media Myth Surrounding Obama's Negative Campaign

In his most recent column, the New York Times' Ross Douthat repeated a common media charge about what a harsh campaign President Obama is running this year. Dubbing the president “Mr. Negative,” Douthat bemoaned what he saw as Obama's nasty Nixonian streak and a campaign that Douthat claims “started out negative and has escalated to frank character assassination.”

This kind of dire rhetoric has become quite common among Beltway pundits and reporters, along with right-wing commentators. Collectively, they have formed a tight-knit narrative about what an almost shockingly negative campaign Obama is running, and how the harsh tone represents the polar opposite of Obama's feel-good run in 2008.

The media chatter really has become deafening. A New York Times news report last month emphasized how both campaigns have gone “relentlessly negative,” while a Miami Herald column trumpeted Obama's “seek and destroy” campaign style, built around a “negative onslaught” targeting Romney. (The Herald piece suggested Obama was “doing the same” thing to Romney that the Swift Boat Veterans had done to John Kerry in 2004.) Meanwhile, The Atlantic dubbed Obama's run a “nasty” and “bare knuckle” campaign fueled by “brutal” tactics.

In fact, when the Romney campaign made an ad complaining about how negative Obama's re-election run has been, it cobbled together on-air quotes from CBS's Bob Schieffer, Time's Mark Halperin and the New York Times' David Brooks, all of whom have gone on TV lamenting the tone of Obama's campaign.

But is the claim accurate? Is the Democrat really running some sort of guttural, ruthlessly negative campaign? Is it far and way more negative than his opponent's effort? And is the tone of Obama's 2012 campaign completely different from his 2008 run for election, as the press insists?

No, no, no, and no.

The topic of Obama's supposedly negative campaign has become something of a media obsession, while at the same time the press has shown very little interest in detailing how the Romney campaign is running almost an entirely anti-Obama sales pitch to American voters. Data regarding political ads indicate that Romney and his allies have spent roughly twice as much money this year airing negative ads than Obama and his supporters. And in terms of the ratio of negative-to-positive ads since April, it's been 2-to-1 for the Obama campaign and 5-to-1 for Romney.

From the Times:

Since April, after Mr. Romney became the presumptive nominee, Mr. Obama broadcast negative commercials 118,775 times compared with 56,128 times for positive commercials.

In the same time period, Mr. Romney ran negative spots 51,973 times and positive spots 11,921, according to an analysis from Kantar Media, which tracks political advertising. This does not include the Republican “super PAC” ads that are almost entirely attacks on the president.

While the research showed that Obama's campaign has been running more negative ads recently, the overall numbers indicate attack ads still make up a far larger portion of the Romney strategy.

And as the Times article indicated, those calculations don't include super PAC ads that have hammered Obama's mercilessly all year. In fact, if you add up the amount of money the Obama campaign and its top three supporting super PAC's and outside allies have spent on negative ads this year, it totals approximately $54 million. The Romney campaign and its top three supporters? They have spent more than $110 million on negative ads in 2012. (Some of that, of course, was spent during the Republican primary season.)

But remember, it's Obama who's guilty of running a nasty campaign.

One media hook for its endless commentary about negativity is the claim that Obama has renounced his 2008 theme of “Hope and Change,” and that he's a hypocrite for attacking his opponent because he once pledged to change the tone of politics in America.  But an examination of four years ago reveals that Obama's run was anchored by ads that routinely attacked his opponent, which is how White House campaigns have unfolded for decades now.

Earlier this year the Washington Post looked back at Obama's 2008 campaign and the type of advertising it included. Citing the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, the Post concluded ads critical of Sen. John McCain were quite common [emphasis added]:  

The report concluded that McCain ran more negative ads than Obama in July, August and November, while Obama ran more negative ads in September and October.


If you only count September, October and November, Obama appears to have a slight edge in negative ads, but virtually all of McCain's ads were negative.

Meaning, there's nothing revolutionary in terms of what the Obama campaign is doing in 2012. Yes, the amount of money the Democrat and Republican candidates are spending continues to shatter all previous benchmarks. That is not in dispute. But in terms of the content and the tone, the race remains reminiscent of previous White House contests.

That context seems to be eluding many in the media. Appearing on C-SPAN last week, Kenneth Goldstein, president of Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, which monitors political advertising content, made the important point that “just because one campaign is talking about the other campaign doesn't mean that it's unfair. It doesn't mean that it's nasty.”

Goldstein added, “I don't think we've seen anything that's particularly below the belt so far.”