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As The Election Nears, Records Are Falling In The Colorado Political Ad Race

Jim Hill

Political television advertising is breaking records in Colorado this election season – and much of that advertising is negative.

But academics who study the impact of such ads question how effective they are.

Candidates and super PACs contracted for almost $36 million at just the four top Denver stations between Aug. 2 and Oct. 23, based on information filed with the Federal Communication Commission and analyzed by the CU News Corps.

Of the 32,470 spots that money will pay for, President Barack Obama’s campaign will spend more than $9 million for 10,005 of them. That compares with 4,209 ads for Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign at a cost of almost $5 million.

Michael M. Franz, co-author of The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising, says two things stand out to him in this election.

“One, that there is more negative advertising than there has been in past years,” he said. “[Second] is that it’s being driven a lot by the fact that the outside spending from third party groups has been much higher than we’ve seen in previous elections.”

In fact, the Wesleyan Media Project at Wesleyan University in Connecticut examined advertising in battleground state television markets from Sept. 9-30 and found that 58 percent of the 7,770 ads that aired in the Denver market were negative. That compares with 70 percent of the 4,661 ads that aired in Grand Junction and 64 percent of the 4,878 ads that aired in Colorado Springs.

Super PACs’ limitless fundraising has caused a significant spike in the number of television ads this election, Franz and other academics say.

Obama’s campaign tops the list with more than $9 million in contracts since Aug. 2.

But five GOP groups contracted for $6.7 million – and that doesn’t count what they spent before Aug. 2.  That compares to $3.3 million contracted by three Democratic groups.

Between Oct. 2 and Oct. 22, American Crossroads almost tripled its ad contracts at the top four Denver stations, from $1.3 million to $3.6 million. The group was founded in 2010 by GOP strategist Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie to promote Republican candidates

On the Democratic side, the super PAC supporting Obama, Priorities USA Action, has contracted for $2.3 million in political ads since Aug. 2.

Because the candidates themselves have no direct say in how a super PAC spends its money, the outside organizations spend their money “pretty exclusively on negative advertising,” says Elizabeth Skewes, a teacher of political communication and media ethics at the University of Colorado.

Is all this spending worth it?

Not necessarily, says Travis Ridout, associate professor of political science at Washington State University and co-author of Campaign Advertising and American Democracy.

“The effects of ads are always quite small in a presidential race,” Ridout says.

For voters who have already made their choice, like Joan Ringel of Denver, negative advertising is more frustrating than it is persuasive.

“This year's political ads make me sad and frustrated. They have no effect on my choices… I hope that the disgusting saturation makes people immune to (negative political ads),” says Ringel, who wouldn’t reveal who she plans to vote for.

In most cases, political advertising isn’t powerful enough to make people vote across party lines. Experts refer to these rare cases as “party defectors.” Franz says it’s highly unlikely all the political ads will connect with potential party defectors unless they have “already become disillusioned with their party.”

And negative advertising may impact an elections outcome by keeping undecided voters away from the polls.

“Negative ads can cause some people to stay home,” Skewes says. “If you’re a candidate and you’re slightly ahead in a state, a barrage of negative advertising can have the impact of keeping undecided voters at home.”

The CU News Corps is a class in Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Colorado aimed at providing student-produced news stories to Colorado and national media outlets. The Public Insight Network was used to find sources for this story; the University of Colorado Journalism & Mass Communication program is an academic partner of PIN, which is operated by American Public Media.

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