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Study: Political TV ads on health law total $445M

Published: Friday, May 16, 2014 2:17 p.m. CDT

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CHICAGO (AP) — A new analysis finds the nation's health care overhaul deserves a place in advertising history as the focus of extraordinarily high spending on negative political TV ads that have gone largely unanswered by the law's supporters.

The report, released Friday by nonpartisan analysts Kantar Media CMAG, estimates $445 million was spent on political TV ads mentioning the law since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Spending on negative ads outpaced positive ones by more than 15 to 1.

Outside of Social Security and Medicare, "no other law has come close to these amounts, much less within such a short period of time," said Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media. "It speaks to the intensity of the opposition among the ACA's political critics" and their belief that the health care issue will benefit their party in this year's elections, she said.

As the November midterm elections approach, the picture looks much the same, Wilner said, although a few pro-Democratic ads are countering with messages supporting the health law and a few pro-Republican ads have gone from a flat-out call for repeal to a message of replacing the law with "free-market solutions."

In the 2014 congressional races, 85 percent of the anti-Obama ads were also anti-"Obamacare" ads, the analysis found. In some competitive races, 100 percent of the pro-Republican TV ads aimed at Democrats contained anti-health law messages.

Over the four years, an estimated $418 million was spent on 880,000 negative TV spots focusing on the law, compared to $27 million on 58,000 positive spots, according to the analysis. Nearly all of the spending was on local TV stations, in races ranging from state offices such as treasurer and governor to Congress and the presidential election.

The analysis is the first attempt to quantify the spending, said Robert Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health, who wasn't involved in the Kantar research.

"That is an extraordinary amount of money," Blendon said. "It's not just $20 checks."

Blendon said the advertising assault on the law draws on lessons Republicans learned during the Clinton administration about harnessing "the ambivalence the middle class has about big reform" to win midterm elections. More than other issues such as immigration, opposition to the Affordable Care Act unites Republicans and independent conservatives.

The Kantar system captures and counts ads and spending in all 210 TV markets and on national broadcast and cable; then analysts code the ads for content and messages.

Wilner, who presented the report Friday at a national meeting of public opinion researchers, said this will be the third consecutive election cycle in which the health care law has been a top issue in TV advertising, but it's the first one in which Americans have actual experience with the law as implemented.

With 8 million Americans choosing health plans on the new insurance markets, Democrats now have the opportunity to talk about the law's benefits, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "It's easier to pivot to real positives about the law. You can say, 'Do you want to cancel 8 million people's insurance?'"

The analysis also counted other spending last fall and winter on health law TV ads by insurance companies, states and the federal government, which increased the total to $700 million.

"Within the span of the enrollment period, nearly as much money was spent on ads trying to sign people up for coverage as was spent over the past four years on ads trying to scare people away," Wilner said. But now that the enrollment period has ended, "they've left the field, and absent any big push by the law's political supporters, the critics have it to themselves again all the way to this fall."

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Associated Press medical writer Carla K. Johnson can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson

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