Although the Republican front-runner in the 2016 presidential election has taunted his opponents as “disgusting,” “dumb,” and “losers,” the campaign has, by at least one measure, proven to be astonishingly positive.
Almost 84 percent of the more than 66,000 ads that candidates and outside spending groups have aired to this point have been positive, according to a report from the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads at the Middletown, Connecticut-based university.
That means most spots airing between Jan. 1 and Dec. 9 “promoted a candidate as opposed to attacking a candidate or comparing one candidate against others.”
The report found that less than 3 percent of the ads were viewed as negative. A third category—contrast ads that mention both the favored and opposed candidate—made up an additional 13 percent.
How is this possible?
“In this race as it stands right now, at least on the Republican side, it’s all moving targets,” said Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “In November or early December, there’s no clear sense of who you want to undermine.”
The one exception has been Donald Trump, but negative ads by super-PACs opposing him have so far failed to curtail his momentum in states like New Hampshire. Most polls show the billionaire holding a double-digit lead over his nearest rival in that first-in-the-nation primary state, according to Real Clear Politics.
“That’s sort of a wasted effort,” Franz, who also teaches at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, said. A number of candidates, including retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, have risen to prominent polling positions behind the real estate mogul. But during the months reflected in the survey, “no one was really standing out” long enough for other candidates to identify them as targets, develop messages to oppose them, and produce and air ads.
Instead, super-PACs and outside groups, which the report found bought the majority of the ads in 2015, have focused on “boosting and promoting” their candidates, or concentrating on biographical details to introduce those who are lesser known to voters.
About half of the ads aired by Democratic groups have been negative, but they accounted for less than 1 percent of ads overall, so it’s hard to know what’s driving them, Franz said. Trump has also aired several negative, self-produced ads on social media, but they weren't included in the survey.
One caveat is that this positive/negative classification, which came from data from Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, doesn’t address tone or distinctions between a candidate and someone who isn’t striving for the same office.
For example, a spot focusing on a candidate’s ability to handle international instability, for example, or on his or her distance from President Obama’s policies, would still count as positive despite the potential for ugly assessments of the world.
It also doesn’t mean the race will stay sunny for much longer, as candidates will begin trying nab voters in key early contests that begin Feb. 1 with Iowa's caucuses.
“I think we’ll see a lot more negativity,” Franz said.