Maybe now last night's brouhaha over negative ads can perhaps be settled.
Obama and McCain traded shots on negativity in the debate. Here's Obama: "One hundred percent, John, of your ads, 100 percent of them have been negative." And here's McCain: "So the fact is that Senator Obama is spending unprecedented — unprecedented in the history of American politics, going back to the beginning — amounts of money in negative attack ads on me."
Neither is precisely right. But according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which crunched the data behind the charges from both candidates, they're both half-right.
Bear with me here.
The project, which operates out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, puts ads into three categories: positive, negative and contrast — that is, a mix of one candidate's virtues and the other candidate's evil ways.
So, it's true that 100 percent of McCain's ads had "significant negative content" during the week of Sept. 28-Oct. 4. Obama apparently got that from a press release put out by the project last week. He blew it last night by making it a blanket statement covering the whole campaign. (During the week in question, by the way, some of McCain's ads included some positive statements. And Obama's ads were 34 percent negative.)
More data-slicing after the jump...
Now, as for McCain's most-money-in-history argument — actually made twice last night — the McCain campaign used a release from the Campaign Media Analysis Group. CMAG, as it's known, is the gatherer of the data used by the Wisconsin project and virtually everyone else who reports on TV political ad buys.
CMAG said that in the 30 days ending Oct. 11, Obama spent $42.3 million on negative ads. McCain spent $27.2 million. So Obama's outlay just for a month of negative ads equals 50 percent of what McCain is allowed to spend on everything from convention to Election Day — "allowed" because McCain took public financing and is barred from raising any private money.
If McCain had been speaking last night in that context — the general election campaign running from the conventions to Election Day — he would have been right.
But he wasn't. Like Obama on the "100 percent" question, he didn't restrict his statement.
Nowadays, a general-election campaign really starts in the spring when the primaries end, roughly four months before the campaign finance law expects it to. When the Wisconsin Advertising Project ran the numbers for this de facto race to Election Day, it found that Obama has yet to outspend President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign on negative ads.
And consider these stats from the project: Obama has run 50,000 more ads than McCain. But McCain has run more straight-negative ads. Factor in the contrast ads (the project counts each contrast ad as half of a negative ad), and the two contenders were dead even.