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  • Emily Williams

Political Mudslinging: Attack Ads in a Post-Citizen’s United World

Presidential politics has long been plagued by the idea of “going negative,” a sort of rhetorical battle between campaigns through the media to sway public opinion by appealing to their sense of character rather than their policy views. The increase in negative advertising has occurred alongside the increase in overall advertising capability by candidates and PACs supporting presidential candidates. The 2012 election, the first following the infamous Supreme Court case Citizens United v. F.E.C., showed a dramatic increase in the number of negative advertisements used by the two nominees’ campaigns and their supporting interest groups. In 2008, only 9.1% of advertisements run were negative. In 2012, that number increased to 70%. All the while, however, there was still at least a superficial attempt to maintain civility.

The 2016 campaign is still in the early stages of primary season, yet the number of negative advertisements, particularly on the Republican side, has increased even more dramatically than in 2012. Perhaps it is because there is not an incumbent running, and thus there are more candidates in the field for each campaign to attack, but the rhetoric of all campaigns thus far has been largely negative. The use of negative ads has increased primarily in South Carolina.

The Republican side has already shown an extreme amount of spending in the first two states to vote. Jeb Bush, who recently dropped out of the race, was the top spender in the Republican party, choosing to target those he saw as his closest rivals. This list included Trump, Rubio, and Kasich. The amount of money spent on negative ads appears to have no effect on electoral results. In New Hampshire, Bush spent the most of any in the Republican primary at $17.7 million, three times more than Rubio, the second largest spender. Despite his attempts at going negative, he placed fourth behind three candidates who spent the least in on going negative.

In the Democratic primary, despite earlier pledges not to, both candidates have opted to go negative in early voting states, but in addition to issue ads. Neither candidate has outdone the other in the way that has been seen in the Republican primary. This relates in to the virtual tie between the two in primaries thus far. With the virtual stalemate in negative advertisements on the Democratic side, there have been far more used than in past primary races. The nature of the negative ads is more subtle than those used by Republicans. Many ads run by both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns have come across as passive aggressive attack ads, though both sides claim they were clean. For example, the Sanders campaign released a television spot titled “Two Visions” that critiques Clinton’s approach to Wall Street. “Two Visions”, like other ads run by both sides, attempts issue-oriented juxtaposition, but instead serves as a subtle attack at their opponent’s policies. This is more typical of primary-era attacks, as each candidate has so many opponents, yet because they are so vague and similar on both Democratic campaigns, it is difficult to determine the efficacy of the ads in swaying voters.

In the second presidential election cycle since the Citizens United v. FEC, the ways in which advertising influences polling data is particularly interesting, insofar as it determines the long term impacts of the resulting increased flow of money into presidential campaigns. This election has shown that an increase in funds leads to an increase in advertising, which snowballs into an onslaught of negative ads, whether or not they are forthright with their attacks. It is, however, only primary season, so it is yet to be determined if this upwards trend in attack ads will continue once the nomination battle is over. Either way, it appears thus far that attack ads have a negative, if any, impact on the candidates running them.

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