In battleground Ohio, the ads come almost non-stop, and with few exceptions their tone is negative.
And Ohioans don’t like it.
A poll conducted by the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics for a group of Ohio newspapers found an overwhelming disgust this election season over negative campaigning.
In the poll of more than 1,000 Ohioans, 80 percent said negative campaigning bothers them, and 76 percent said it is damaging democracy.
Nearly three in four respondents said negative campaigning discourages voting and a whopping nine in 10 figure it’s more likely to manipulate emotion than provide useful information.
“It works,” because people remember them better than positive ads, politicians usually say when asked for the reasons they do it. Those who analyze political advertising agree, and note that not all negative ads have a negative impact on civil discourse.
Negativity in moderation in fact can be useful, said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which has tracked advertising in federal elections since 2010. “It helps voters draw a contrast between candidates.”
“[But] for other people,” he said, “it can be demobilizing.”
Moderation has been hard to find in the fast and furious pace of the campaign advertising in Ohio this year. The Wesleyan Media Project estimates Ohioans have seen more than $35 million in U.S. Senate ads and $14 million in presidential ads — with the volume certain to increase in the months to go before election day.
Virtually all the presidential ads have been negative, according to the Bliss Institute’s research, while about 60 percent of the Senate ads have slung arrows at the opponent in the race.
Groups like the Wesleyan Media Project say the increasing negative tone of advertising in recent years coincides with an influx of attack ads by outside groups.
These non-candidate groups — funded by organized labor, billionaires and corporate interests — have exploded since their right to free speech was affirmed in 2008 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the controversial Citizens United case.
‘I’m almost questioning voting’
Florida and Ohio jockey for first and second place in total ads aired, but Ohio has seen more outside group activity than any state.
In a Wesleyan study of top presidential ad markets from Aug. 19 — when Donald Trump bought his first general election ads — through Aug. 21, four Ohio markets made the list: Columbus (5th), Cleveland (7th), Toledo (8th) and Dayton (10th).
In a study of ads between June 8 and Aug. 18, the Cleveland media market, which includes Akron and Canton, ranked third nationally, followed by Columbus (7th) , Toledo (12th) and Dayton (13th). The Dayton market had a total of 3,265 airings during that time at an estimated cost of $1.6 million, according to the study.
The onslaught of ever-intensifying and negative ads have turned some voters into cynics.
“I’m almost questioning voting,” said Walter Powers, a 42-year-old father and college student from West Akron.
“The closer it gets to the presidential [election], the dirtier the ads get, the more incompetent the one tries to make the other one,” said Powers. “It’s just one commercial after another. The closer to November it gets, the worse it is.”
Ridout, whose courses at Washington State University cover the use of media in political campaigns, said the crush of attack ads from outside groups forces candidates to fire back or risk losing ground.
“You’re kind of in a vicious cycle of attack, attack, attack, which makes it even more negative,” he said.
Top-dollar Senate race
Ohio’s tight Senate race between incumbent Republican Sen. Rob Portman and Democrat Ted Strickland, a former governor, has attracted more outside spending than any Senate race in the country.
Strickland, in fact, has endured so many attacks on his record and reputation he aired a response ad that said, “Attack ads are easy. Leading in a crisis is hard.”
Thirty-four Senate seats are up for election this year, but Strickland alone has been the victim of $18 million in outside attacks, compared to $23 million against all other Democrats, according to The Center for Responsive Politics.
Portman, meanwhile, has raised more money than any other candidate for the House or Senate.
The Koch brothers-backed Freedom Partners Action Fund and Americans for Prosperity have led the messaging against Strickland, while outside spending against Portman can almost entirely be traced to the Senate Majority PAC, led by Congressional Democrats.
For Democrats, about 29 percent of the outside spending on Senate campaigns has been aimed at capturing Portman’s seat.
While both Portman and Strickland are airing their own ads, a Bliss Institute study found a big difference in tone between ads aired by the candidates and those paid for by outside groups.
In the past month, all nine ads produced by Portman were positive, the institute’s research showed, while Strickland’s five ads were a mix of positive and negative.
However, the study found, every ad paid for by an outside group during this time frame was negative.