WASHINGTON -- If you turned on the radio in Missouri over the summer, you may have heard ads attacking Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) for her support of the stimulus bill and her failure to pay back taxes on a private plane. Ads now running in Montana hit Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) for accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists. A labor coalition is blasting Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) for his party line votes. These early attacks continue the trend toward negativity in political ads that set a record in 2010 and is expected to blast through the ceiling in 2012.
There is little doubt that the 2012 campaigns will feature unprecedented spending by both candidates and outside groups. Moody's Investor Service predicts that 2012 will be a record year for political advertising, topping the $2.3 billion spent on broadcast ads in 2010. President Barack Obama is expected to run the first $1 billion campaign, while four outside groups and the billionaire Koch brothers have announced spending goals totaling $595 million -- nearly double the amount spent in 2010 by all outside groups.
"You're not going to be able to watch television without seeing political advertising, even Saturday morning cartoons," said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks outside spending in elections.
Campaign observers expect much of this advertising to go on the attack.
"Everyone says, 'This election is the most negative,' every two years, but 2010 was really the most negative in [the past decade]," said Michael Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.
A study by the Wesleyan Media Project found that the 2010 midterm elections were the most negative in terms of television advertising in at least the past decade. More than 50 percent of the ads reviewed in the study were pure attack ads, as opposed to promotional or contrast ads. The most consistently negative were ads from the political parties and from outside groups like American Crossroads, a powerful conservative super PAC responsible for the $125,000 in radio ads against McCaskill this year.
Spending by outside groups has ballooned since the Supreme Court in its January 2010 decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allowed unlimited corporate and union donations to independent groups to spend on elections. Last year, the amount spent by outside groups topped $300 million, a 500 percent increase from the previous midterm election in 2006. The Wesleyan Media Project found that outside groups spent $111 million on advertising alone, with 86 percent of that in the form of attack ads.
"An outside group can go on the attack and keep the candidate that they like clean," explained Franz. "An allied group can be vicious, can sling mud, can smear. That's one of the values of outside groups."
Missouri Democratic Party spokeswoman Claire Legacki expressed a similar thought in a statement to The Huffington Post about the attacks against McCaskill: "Certainly with the ruling that allows billions of dollars in anonymous contributions from outside of Missouri to flood our state with untruths and spin, it makes it harder for candidates to compete."
Super PACs are already firing away in the Republican presidential primary. Ads from Keep Conservatives United, a pro-Michele Bachmann super PAC, knocked Rick Perry. The pro-Ron Paul Revolution PAC hit both Perry and Mitt Romney with an ad questioning their credibility as conservatives.
While all this may sound terrible to the public -- negative ads routinely appear at the top of polls when Americans are asked what they dislike about political campaigns -- such ads can serve a positive purpose.
"Negative ads are underappreciated," said John Geer, chairman of the political science department at Vanderbilt University. "Not that they're always good things, but democracy isn't always easy, and we need to hear the bad with the good. They serve a pretty important small-'D' democratic function."
Geer, author of the book "In Defense of Negativity: Attack Advertising in Presidential Campaigns," explained that negative ads include more useful information about policies, issues, and prior actions (like legislative votes) than positive ads do. This provides opportunities for voters to learn more about the candidates and for the media to fact-check claims.
Negative advertising can have other effects as well. David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development and the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University, conducted research on the influence of attack ads in the 2000 election. The research revealed that thematic negative ads, those that touch on recurring political themes and launch personal attacks, make voters more cynical about the political process and government in general.
"Those thematic ads tend to leave the voters ultimately more cynical about the political process than do the issue negative ads," Procter said. "Essentially what they're doing is rotting the infrastructure of the political system."
The messages of these ads are often amplified by the news media, both because reporters seek to check their claims and because the inflammatory content creates controversy and increases ratings.
"The news media's coverage is a problem," Geer said. "The most outrageous and the most nasty are the ones that will get the most news coverage."
President Lyndon Johnson's infamous "Daisy" ad is an early example of the press providing a megaphone for controversial television advertising. The ad, which featured an innocent little girl picking petals from a daisy juxtaposed with a nuclear test countdown and ended with a mushroom cloud explosion, ran only once in 1964, but was carried on every network news station as the media covered the subsequent controversy.
The 2004 ads targeting Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), then the Democratic presidential candidate, by the outside group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth exemplified the use of controversy to generate free air time. According to the August 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey, nearly one-third of all respondents and 50 percent of all cable news viewers said they had seen the ads alleging that Kerry lied about his service in Vietnam. Given that Swift Boat Veterans did not run the ads widely, that broad recognition was only possible because the media gave the ads extensive coverage during the usually slow news month of August.
Sometimes, attacks ads can backfire. In the 2008 Senate race in North Carolina, a desperate Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), trailing in the polls, aired an ad accusing her Democratic challenger, Kay Hagan, of raising money at the home of an atheist affiliated with the Godless Americans PAC. The ad even featured a voice actor faking Hagan's voice to say, "There is no God." The ad backfired, putting Dole on the defensive in the final days of the campaign. Hagan won by a convincing margin.