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Get Ready For a Tsunami of Attack Ads as the Election Approaches

ElectionsMedia IndustryMitt RomneyLinda McMahonBarack ObamaChris Murphy

By now, you're probably getting that "I'm-about-to-vomit" feeling from all those nasty TV campaign ads screaming about the contestants in Connecticut's mud-splattered U.S. Senate and 5th Congressional District campaigns.

One small consolation may be that, according to the Wesleyan Media Project's campaign-ad trackers, things are a hell of a lot worse for voters in places like Montana and Missouri. On the other hand, those same experts warn we're likely to be inundated by an even uglier tidal wave of campaign crap during October because both of those Connecticut races look to be close and could help decide which party controls Congress.

The Wesleyan Media Project (WMP) has become a critical player in the effort to monitor the incredible amounts of special interest money being poured into the 2012 election campaigns. The Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns and their super PAC allies have already pumped out more than $400 million and are expected by some experts to spend another $600 million before we stagger into Election Day.

A major reason for this vast deluge of cash is that corporations, unions and wealthy individuals can now spend unlimited amounts of money attempting to influence elections, thanks to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case.

National and international news organizations now regularly cite WMP reports and analysis on campaign advertising and spending by individual campaigns, national party organizations and super PACs funded by well-heeled special interests.

Of course, not all candidates need super PAC dollars. We have our own record-breaking mega-millionaire Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, running on a flood of her own dollars against Democrat Chris Murphy in Connecticut's U.S. Senate race.

The Republican candidate is effectively her own super PAC. She spent almost $50 million in 2010 in her first U.S. Senate campaign, only to lose big. McMahon, who's already blown another $20 million or so this year, now has the somewhat dubious distinction of having spent more than anyone else in history attempting to get into the U.S. Senate.

And her free-spending ways have turned this race into what recent polls say is a toss-up. So naturally the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (which once-upon-a-time expected Murphy to win going away) last month started dumping $320,000 into ads to bolster the Democrat. You can count on McMahon to up the ante even higher as we head into the last month of the campaign.

Some of the statistics generated this year by the WMP are mind-blowing.

Montana, a state with a population less than one-third of Connecticut's, suffered exposure to 44,548 individual U.S. Senate campaign TV ads between June 1 and Sept. 8. In Missouri, there were 28,583 campaign ads broadcast for the same period by competing U.S. Senate wannabes.

Connecticut's increasingly bitter U.S. Senate brawl came in only in 16th place on the WMP's list in terms of the number of ads broadcast, with 6,841 campaign commercials between June and September.

Part of the reason why, says WMP spokeswoman Lauren Rubenstein, is that buying TV ads in Connecticut's media market is way more expensive than buying air time in Montana or Missouri or a lot of other hot race locales.

Travis Ridout, a Washington State University professor of government and public policy and one of the WMP's co-directors, points out that ad spending by all parties in Connecticut's U.S. Senate race between June and early September totaled $10.6 million, which ranks fifth in the nation in Senate campaigns. (At the top of the list is the Missouri race with $13.4 million.)

Ridout is involved in this effort because Washington State University, along with Bowdoin College, is a partner with Wesleyan University in the WMP.

Connecticut's 5th Congressional District race between Democrat Elizabeth Esty and Republican Andrew Roraback was the most expensive U.S. House contest in the nation as of early September, according to a WMP analysis. The candidates, parties and outside groups had spent more than $3.5 million over four months, including on the August primaries.

Interestingly, the biggest super PAC spenders in the 5th District were all left-leaning or Democratic groups, according to the WMP: New Directions for America; Patriot Majority USA; and Women Vote (the Emily's List political action committee).

Connecticut isn't being deluged with presidential campaign ads because Mitt Romney and his Republican allies have already written off this state. Recent polls show Barack Obama's Democratic campaign with a solid and likely irreversible lead here, so both sides are spending their money in "battleground states" like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.

If you're beginning to think this is the most negative political campaign you've ever seen, Ridout says you are not freaking out. "Yes, this is definitely the most negative," he says.

According to the WMP's analysis of national presidential ads, 72 percent of all pro-Romney campaign commercials are attack ads, while 46 percent of pro-Obama spots are actually attacks on Romney.

While Connecticut voters have been spared a lot of the presidential campaign blasts, and have so far avoided the kinds of congressional barrages that have pelted voters in Montana and Missouri, Ridout suggests that may not last.

Super PAC and party money tends to flow toward contests "whenever the polls are really close in a race," he points out. And both Connecticut's U.S. Senate and 5th Congressional District seats appear to be up for grabs. So brace yourself for the onslaught.

"As long as it looks like a race could tip either way," Ridout warns, "you're going to see that outside money come storming in."

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