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Anecdotal laments about the tone of the 2012 presidential campaign now have some stark numbers to back them up. A new study from the Wesleyan Media Project found that 70 percent of the ads this cycle have been negative so far, up from just 9.1 percent at this point in 2008.
The source of those ads has changed dramatically too, the study found: 59 percent of the ads this campaign season have come from outside interest groups including super PACs, where only 3.3 percent did at this point in 2008. Of those, 86 percent were negative; in 2008, only 25 percent were. (Spending by interest groups soared to $77.5 million in 2012, up from $6.3 million in 2008.)
Despite the extreme numbers, the co-authors of the study were cautious about assigning blame. "One reason the campaign has been so negative is the skyrocketing involvement of interest groups, who have increased their activity by 1100 percent over four years ago," wrote Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the project. "But we cannot attribute the negativity solely to outside groups. Even the candidates’ own campaigns have taken a dramatic negative turn."
Indeed, ads from the candidates have jumped from 9 percent negative at this point in 2008 to 52.5 percent negative in 2012.
The Los Angeles Times partially explains the shift by noting that unlike in 2008, this year features an incumbent with a large operation already in place and saw an unusually wide-open and contentious Republican race. But most observers point mainly to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which is widely blamed for clearing the way for super PACs and other outside groups to play a "historic" role in this election, as the study's authors put it.
Read the full results of the study here, including a breakdown of the super PACs that are injecting the most money in the campaign.