During the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama described negative campaigning as the refuge of candidates who “don’t have a record to run on.”
An Obama TV commercial that aired in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, suggesting that Mr. Romney may not have paid any income tax in recent years, is only one example of the negative onslaught that the president’s re-election campaign has deployed this year.
The sheer volume of those ads is blanketing the nation as well as battleground states. In the 30-day period that ended July 2, the researchers said, the Obama campaign ran 68,443 ads on TV, either on local broadcasts, national networks or national cable outlets. Of those Obama spots, 52,016 had an anti-Romney message — 76 percent of the total.
Observers say the furiously negative tit-for-tat is occurring much earlier in the presidential race than in 2008. The Wesleyan Media Project, which studies campaign advertising, said one reason the race has become so negative is because of the “skyrocketing involvement of interest groups, who have increased their activity by 1,100 percent over four years ago.”
But Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director, said the group cannot attribute the rise in negative ads solely to independent organizations, noting that even the candidates’ own campaigns have gone negative early.
The Wesleyan Project said interest-group airings were 75 percent positive in 2008, compared with only 14 percent positive through April 22 of this year. It said candidates’ ads, which made up the bulk of the airings in 2008, were only 9 percent negative in 2008.
The negative tone is rising as the race hits the midsummer period that often provides a lull in campaigning.
Last week, Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter even argued that Mr. Romney may have committed a felony by allegedly providing misleading or false information to the Securities and Exchange Commission about his final years at the private equity firm Bain Capital.
Ms. Cutter defended the noticeably negative shift in the president’s campaign from four years ago.
“I think the president is laying out the choice,” she said on NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday. “Elections are about choices. And we have two very different directions that we can go in this country, and that’s what the president is communicating.”
She added that Mr. Obama is talking about his own record “every single day” on the campaign trail.
The Romney campaign argues that Mr. Obama is going negative precisely because he is confronting his own lesson of four years ago — he doesn’t have a record to run on.
“With no rationale for re-election and no plan to help middle-class Americans, President Obama has resorted to running a campaign of distraction, distortion and dishonesty,” said Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama has decried the negative campaigning as if it’s all aimed at him. He complained last week in Virginia Beach about negative ads funded by “folks who can write $10 million checks.”
“The IRS would have knocked on his door, and we’d all know about it,” Mr. Sununu told reporters.
He also criticized the Obama campaign for insinuating that Mr. Romney may have committed a felony with the SEC, and he implied that the president might be receiving more of the same rough treatment soon from the GOP camp.
“I am shocked that the president introduced the word ‘felon’ into the political discourse,” Mr. Sununu said. “He comes out of that murky political world in Chicago” where, he said, two governors are in jail and so is developer Tony Rezko, “who did a smarmy real estate deal with the president.”
Even the candidates’ singing is fair game for negative ads.
On Saturday, the Obama campaign released an ad in nine battleground states that featured Mr. Romney crooning “America the Beautiful” against a backdrop of empty factories and vacant offices, intended to paint the Republican as an outsourcer of U.S. jobs.
Two days later, the Romney campaign came out with an ad that shows Mr. Obama singing Al Green’s “I’m So in Love With You,” accompanied by headlines about the president rewarding lobbyists and campaign donors.
Patriotism, or a lack of it, also has become a theme of both camps’ negative campaigning. It’s central to the Obama team’s accusations that Mr. Romney has been more interested in shipping jobs overseas than in preserving the livelihoods of American workers.
But an analysis by ABC News found this charge to be untrue, saying there was no evidence that Bain Capital “shipped any U.S. jobs there under Romney’s leadership.
Mr. Sununu trod into the same flag-waving territory Tuesday while complaining to reporters about Mr. Obama’s comments on the campaign trail last week. The president said at a stop in Roanoke, Va., that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Mr. Sununu said the comment was “insulting” to American entrepreneurs and added, “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.” He later clarified that remark by saying, “The president has to learn the American formula for creating business.”
Within 30 minutes of Mr. Sununu’s comments, Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith issued a statement saying that “the Romney campaign has officially gone off the deep end.”