Anti-Trump Messaging Dominates Candidate TV Ads

By Madi Alexander

Oct. 5 — Spending on TV ads attacking Donald Trump is dwarfing money spent in favor of the Republican presidential nominee, according to a Bloomberg BNA analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data. Anti-Trump ads are also dominating those in favor of and against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Clinton and her allies have ramped up spending on television ads attacking her opponent in recent weeks. Her campaign, along with the Clinton-aligned Priorities USA Action super PAC, spent an estimated $4.6 million and $3.1 million respectively on ads criticizing Trump from Sept. 27 to Oct. 3.

anti-Trump ads

“It is routinely the case that negative campaigning is more prevalent than positive campaigning by a significant margin,” said Mark Bernhardt, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois who researches tone in political advertising.

Bernhardt said that Trump and Clinton probably have a similar ratio of negative and positive ads, but that Clinton is “campaigning significantly more than Trump.”

With more money and resources, Clinton can focus her attention mainly on anti-Trump messaging while also building her reputation with well-placed positive ads, he said.

Trump Lags Behind Clinton in Ad Buys

Trump, meanwhile, didn’t start airing ads for the general election until late August, though the candidate has ramped up his ad buys in the past week—taking out an estimated $2.3 million in ads against Clinton. The Trump campaign doled out about $18.1 million in the past eight weeks on ads attacking his opponent, compared with Clinton’s nearly $52 million on anti-Trump ads.

Rebuilding America Now, the main Trump-aligned super PAC, continues to pour money into ads both supporting Trump and criticizing Clinton. The group launched its pro-Trump ads in July and has since spent about $2.5 million in support of the Republican candidate.

Spending on anti-Clinton ads jumped to about $6.2 million the week of Sept. 19 from about $1.2 million during the last week of July—a fivefold increase. Trump and Rebuilding America Now are the top spenders on anti-Clinton ads.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a conservative super PAC, and the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, a dark money group that doesn’t disclose its donors, came in third and fourth respectively for spending on ads criticizing Clinton. The Senate Leadership Fund has spent an estimated $2.5 million on anti-Clinton ads since early August, while the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action has spent about $3.8 million.

Swing States See More Negative Messaging

Bloomberg BNA identified nine states where the presidential race is too tight to call: Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. In those swing states, a majority of television ads were negative in tone—about 58 percent.

Kantar Media collects data nationally on television ads and categorizes them into three tones: positive, negative and contrast. Contrast ads are a mixture of negative and positive messaging.

negative ads

Stronghold states—where one candidate is already expected to win—see more positive and contrast ads. About 39 percents of ads in stronghold states are positive, compared to 25 percent positive advertisements in swing states.

In Oklahoma—a Republican stronghold—TV ads in the past eight weeks have been about 53 percent positive, 29 percent negative and 18 percent contrast. Democratic stronghold California has seen a similar trend in its TV ads. Sightly more than half of ads run in California in the past eight weeks have been positive in tone.

Negative messaging accounts for more than 60 percent of TV ads in Ohio, where the presidential race remains highly competitive. And in Nevada, which will award six electoral votes, three out of four ads are negative in tone.

Swing states see more negative than positive ads because negative messaging is slightly more effective, according to Bernhardt.

“The impact of any individual ad is tiny. Even the cumulative effect is tiny, but it’s there,” he said. “In a close election, [the effect] can be the difference between a candidate winning by a percent and losing by a percent.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Madi Alexander in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at

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