Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Seven out of ten political ads have been negative during the 2012 election cycle. It's a far cry from 2008, when only one in ten ads attacked candidates by name — and when interest groups weren't funding the majority of political ads.
According to a new study by the Wesleyan Media Project, about 91 percent of political advertising was positive during the 2008 cycle, and only about 9 percent was negative, meaning the ad directly mentioned an opponent. Ninety-one percent of advertising funded by candidates was positive, compared to 75 percent of ads funded by outside interest groups.
But this year is a whole new ball game. Advertising is overwhelmingly negative, and overwhelmingly paid for by interest groups.
Candidates' ads are now 53 percent negative, and interest group ads, including those bought by SuperPACs, are a whopping 86 percent negative.
"With the rise of interest group activity, which we knew we were going to have this cycle, we expected it to be more negative," said Erika Frankling Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.
Fowler said it all comes back to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which did away with limits on contributions to, and spending by, third party organizations that remain technically unaffiliated with a candidate. Since the decision, SuperPACs have found their niche as a sort of shadow war chest for attack ads.
"That really makes sense from a candidate's perspective," Fowler said. "If you know there will be some backlash to you sponsoring a negative ad, then it's better for you if the negativity is 'outsourced' to a third party."
Sixty percent of all advertising in 2012 has been paid for by SuperPACs and other interest groups. In 2008, they accounted for only three percent.
Crossroads GPS, a SuperPAC that supports Republican candidates, has produced the most ads and spent the most money on advrtising of any organization — candidate, party, or otherwise — in the 2012 cycle. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, they've been responsible for about 17,000 ads, which is about as many as Barack Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee combined.