(Susan Walsh/AP)

“No candidate in American history has ever run more negative ads than Barack Obama.”

— Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), speaking on CNN, Jan. 31, 2012.


A reader asked us about Rubio’s statement, saying, “I do not recall Obama being overly negative in his campaign.”

 But it appears to be an article of faith for Republicans. Joe Scarborough, a former GOP member of Congress who hosts MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” declared on Wednesday: “Barack Obama won ugly in 2008; he ran more negative ads than anyone else in the history of television.”

 But is this really the case?

The Facts

 The nasty campaign of 2008 actually was raised in one of the presidential debates at the time. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s Republican rival, complained that Obama had “spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history.” Obama responded that almost all of McCain’s ads were negative. 

The exchange gets to the crux of the issue. Obama had raised more money than any candidate in U.S. history, so he was able to spend significant amounts of money on negative ads—and positive ads. (From September on, Obama and his allies had $380 million to spend, compared to $195 million for McCain and his allies.)

 But the truth is that McCain had a higher percentage of negative ads, and quite likely matched or even exceeded the number of negative ads aired by Obama. So his campaign, on a percentage basis, was more negative.

 As we have often explained in this column, raw numbers can be misleading without proper context. Rubio could have just as easily have said that no candidate had raised as much money as Barack Obama, but instead he choose to focus on the fact that a good chunk of that money was spent on negative ads.

 But Obama could afford to spend money on positive ads, especially in the final days of the campaign, while McCain turned increasingly negative as the campaign progressed. (This could be one reason why the reader who asked about Rubio’s comment has an impression that Obama was not overly negative.)

 In a 2010 report, the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project (which is now housed at Wesleyan University as the Wesleyan Media Project) surveyed presidential advertising in the 2008 campaign. The report concluded that McCain ran more negative ads than Obama in July, August and November, while Obama ran more negative ads in September and October.

 But while Obama ran slightly more negative ads in October, he could also afford to spend tens of millions of dollars on positive ads, so that one third of his ads in October were positive, compared to only a small percentage of McCain’s ads. (Look on the bar chart on page 5.)

 The report unfortunately does not mention actual numbers, but the bar chart suggests that both men aired just about the same number of negative ads between July and election day—245,000. (The bar chart also has June but those numbers are too small to estimate.)

If you only count September, October and November, Obama appears to have a slight edge in negative ads, but virtually all of McCain’s ads were negative.

 “At certain points in the campaign Barack Obama aired nearly as many negative or contrast ads as John McCain aired altogether,” the report concluded. “As a proportion, however, it is clear that most of McCain’s ads were negative in tone.”

 (One caveat: Counting just ad spots can itself be misleading, since an ad spot in a small market will not reach as many people, or cost as much, as an ad spot in a large market.)

 Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio, said: “People don’t think of advertising in relative terms; the bottom line is that they saw more negative ads from the Obama campaign than any other campaign ever.”

We found another study that analyzed the content of the ads, not the number of ads, and it gave a slight edge in negative statements to Obama--68 percent—compared to 62 percent to McCain. But it turns out that Obama wasn’t the worst in history.

 “The only campaign in history that matches this level of negativity was in the first ever presidential TV spot campaign [in 1952] when Dwight Eisenhower had negative attacks in 69 percent of his ad statements,” said William Benoit, formerly with the University of Missouri and now with Ohio University. He notes that this could be considered a “virtual tie” between Eisenhower and Obama.

 In fact, we thought it was a bit rich for the Obama campaign to issue a memo Wednesday complaining about the negative tone of Romney’s ad campaign in the Florida primary. The president certainly did run a lot of negative ads to win election in 2008, and judging from the campaign so far—and the emergence of Super PACS--the negativity on both sides is only beginning.


The Pinocchio Test

 Rubio’s statement is a good example of a “fact” that needs context. On balance, it appears that Obama and McCain ran just about the same number of negative ads; certainly McCain ran a larger percentage of negative ads. Obama may well have spent more money on negative ads, but after all, he spent much more money on positive ads too.


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