Slow Starts, Negative Strikes, and the Role of Super PACs: Everything You Wanted to Know about This Year's Ad War
The ad war for this year's gubernatorial contest is in full swing. Already a couple of story lines about campaign advertising in 2015 have emerged. The first is that the campaign got off to a slow start, with candidates and political organizations making little effort to reach voters until these final weeks. The second common narrative is that with super PACs active in a Louisiana governor’s contest for the first time we will suffer a blitz of vitriol and attacks unprecedented in our political history. Both story lines are intriguing, but do the data back them up?
A Slow Start?
This first graph shows the days when the campaigns for three of the four major candidates launched their first television ads compared to the amount of advertising in 2003. (Scott Angelle’s first television ad does not appear on the graph because it went live in February, before the time period shown here.) The 2003 campaign makes for a good comparison because it was the last truly competitive open-seat race for Louisiana governor. (Although there was no incumbent in 2007, Bobby Jindal was the clear front-runner throughout that year).
The solid black line shows the daily count of all campaign ads aired on television during the 2003 campaign in the state’s three largest media markets: New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport areas. The data are from the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which tracked gubernatorial, congressional, and presidential campaign ads in the country’s 75 or 100 largest media markets during the 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2008 election cycles.
There was a relatively low volume of television advertising in the 2003 campaign until about 80 days before the runoff. Before that point, the early advertising in 2003 came from a handful of candidates who never made it into the top tier of competition: Jay Blossman, who dropped out before the primary election, as well as Buddy Leach and Randy Ewing, who placed 4th and 5th on Election Day.
The 2015 candidates got their first ads on television at around the same point when ads in the 2003 campaign really picked up. The top-tier of competitive candidates – Kathleen Blanco, Richard Ieyoub, and Bobby Jindal – launched their first television ads at about the same point in the campaign that John Bel Edwards and Jay Dardenne did twelve years later. In fact, Jindal did not put ads on television until later in the 2003 campaign than Dardenne in 2015.
However the starts of their ad wars compare, this year’s election has already surpassed 2003. According to the Center for Public Integrity, 18,445 ads have aired in this year’s campaign as of October 5th. Only 8,941 ads had aired by the same point (19 days before the primary) in 2003. In fact, we have already seen more ads this year than we saw in the entire primary election of 2003 (15,577 ads). So much for a sleepy start.
Going Negative Earlier
This year’s campaign also went negative much earlier than in 2003. As far as I can tell, the first explicitly attack ad of the governor’s race appeared on television in early September, sponsored by an outside group. Since then, several other attack ads have hit the airwaves. The second graph shows how the date of the first negative ad in 2015 compares with the tone of advertising in 2003. The Wisconsin Advertising Project coded the purpose of each 2003 ad as promoting a candidate (positive), as attacking a candidate (negative), or as drawing a contrast between candidates (mixing positive and negative tones). The first attack ad of the 2015 race came well before any negative attacks of 2003.
Are More Attacks Ads on the Way?
Overall, 23 percent of all campaign ads were negative in the 2003 Louisiana gubernatorial race, but there is a large difference between the primary and runoff. Before the primary only 18 percent of ads were negative; after the primary 32 percent were negative. If the same pattern hold, we’ll see more attacks in the runoff than we have already seen.
It is also likely that we’ll see more attacks over the total campaign season than we saw in 2003. There has been a long-term rise in the amount of negative ads in American gubernatorial campaigns over the past one and a half decades. The Wisconsin Advertising Project ceased data collection after the 2008 election, but the Wesleyan Media Project has continued data collection since 2010. The most recent data available for researchers are from 2012, but the Wesleyan Media Project has released some of its own analysis of the 2014 ad data. The third graph shows the percent of negative televised ads in American gubernatorial campaigns aired during the final two months before Election Day. (The 2014 estimate is taken from the Wesleyan Media Project’s release and uses a slightly different time frame, September 1 through October 23.)
The share of negative ads in gubernatorial campaigns has grown about 15 percentage points over this period. If Louisiana follows the pattern of other states, we will see more attacks than in past elections.
Did the Super PACs Do It?
The conventional wisdom is that outside groups known as super PACs, which can receive unlimited donations and face few restrictions in spending, unleash a barrage of vitriolic attacks in our campaigns. But this view is only half correct.
Although born in part from a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case, super PACs really entered the American electoral landscape in 2012. Outside groups, including Super PACs, sponsored 35% of campaign ads in gubernatorial elections held across the U.S. that year. Ten years earlier, outside groups paid for fewer than 4% of campaign ads in gubernatorial elections.
Outside groups sponsored less than half of a percent of television ads in the 2003 and 2011 elections for governor here in Louisiana. This year, they have already sponsored 27% of all ads (through October 5th). Fund for Louisiana’s Future (the pro-Vitter super PAC) has paid for 16% of all ads aired so far; Louisiana Rising PAC (the pro-Angelle super PAC) has paid for 5%; Now or Never Louisiana PAC (the pro-Dardenne super PAC) has paid for 2%; and the Water Coalition PAC and Gumbo PAC (two anti-Vitter super PACs) combine for 4% of all ads.
There is no data yet about the tone of these ads, but Super PACs do tend to provide significant funding for negative spots. The fourth graph shows the trend for the percent of negative ads in American gubernatorial campaigns that are sponsored by candidates, parties, and outside groups. The long term trend has been a decline in the share of negative ads coming from candidates and parties and a rise in the share coming from outside groups. There was an enormous shift between 2010 and 2012 when super PACs stormed on the political scene. The share of negative ads sponsored by outside groups jumped from 24% to 68%. Because there is only one data point after the emergence of super PACS, we should be careful about making too much from this. Still, with that caveat in kind, the evidence certainly suggests that Super PACs shoulder much of the responsibility for attack ads in American gubernatorial campaigns.
So, outside groups like super PACs play a bigger role in campaigns for governor than ever before and they are responsible for the majority of attack ads in these campaigns… but that is not the same thing as blaming super PACs for increasing the negativity of these campaigns.
Take another look at the third graph above. The share of negative ads in gubernatorial campaigns hardly budged when super PACs came on the scene between 2010 and 2012. Instead, candidates and parties have tended to cut back on their negative advertising as it shifts over to super PACS – amounting to essentially no net change in overall negativity. Most of the increasing negativity of American gubernatorial campaigns over the past 15 years occurred before super PACs.
We have already seen more negative advertising in this year’s gubernatorial campaign than we saw by this point twelve years ago. We will probably see more negative ads over the course of the whole campaign than we saw back then. Super PACs are likely underwriting a substantial share of these attacks. And yet, none of this means that without super PACs we would somehow have a positive, policy-oriented campaign free of vitriol and personal attacks.