Ad update: Setting a negative tone

Data provided to WRAL News by the Kantar Media tracking service confirms the sense that the tone of the U.S. Senate campaign is overwhelmingly negative.

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Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis, 2014 U.S. Senate race
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Aug. 19 was the busiest day so far of the U.S. Senate campaign air war between first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis, according to data provided to WRAL News by the Kantar Media

On that day, broadcast television airwaves in North Carolina carried 527 different instances of commercials that mentioned one of the candidates. That doesn't count ads carried by cable or satellite television channels. Chances are, if you saw one of those ads, it wasn't particularly kind to one of the candidates.

Kantar codes most of the ads it tracks as either positive or negative. Less than 10 percent aren't assigned a category. 

Since Jan. 1, three out of every four ads aired about the race have been tagged as negative. 

"It's human nature to pay attention to negative information," said Steven Greene, a North Carolina State University professor of political science.

While there is some debate in political science literature about how useful political ads are, Greene said it's unlikely campaigns would continue to spend money on them if they didn't work. 

So far, campaigns and third-party groups have spent an estimated $17 million on television ads from Jan. 1 through Aug. 24. Third-party groups include super PACs, 501(c)(4) nonprofits and others that aren't allowed to explicitly coordinate with campaigns but can help them by airing ads designed to influence voters. 

There has been shift in the tone of the campaign ads lately, with only two-thirds of those aired so far in August tagged as explicitly negative. That shift appears to coincide with both Hagan and Tillis airing their own commercials. While the bulk of the ads put on the air since Jan. 1 have been aired by third-party groups, candidates are now spending out of their own campaign war chests. None of the spots aired by either candidate could be coded as explicitly negative, according to Kantar. 

"They now have super PACs and the other third-party groups to run all the negative ads," Greene said.

While candidates used to have to do the bulk of their own advertising, positive and negative, it makes sense of them to focus on the positive if other groups are committed to attack ads.

Chances are, Greene said, the campaign will swing more negative as the fall wears on and candidates add attacks to their mix of commercials. 

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