Screenshot of Campaign ad / Keep the Promise 1

South Carolinians see negative ad barrage ahead of GOP primary

Attack ads figured much more in the lead up to the state's primary than previous contests in Iowa and New Hampshire

The Republican race for the presidential nomination is becoming increasingly nasty as voters prepare to head to the polls in South Carolina on Saturday.

So far this month, more than 15,200 TV ads have been blasted at South Carolinians, with nearly two-thirds of them negative, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data provided by advertising monitoring firm Kantar Media/CMAG. The negative ad total includes spots that contrast multiple candidates and typically cast at least one in a disparaging light.

Since TV ads from GOP candidates, super PACs and political nonprofits first began airing in South Carolina, nearly half have been negative. That’s a marked change from previous contests. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to host votes for a presidential nominee, only about one-third of all TV ads were attack ads.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and his super PAC allies are primarily responsible for the recent onslaught.

So far this month, Cruz and his supporters have aired more than 5,400 TV ads — an average of about one every four minutes. Many of these have gone after his rival Republican White House hopefuls Donald Trump, a real estate mogul who currently leads in the polls, and Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida.

Both Trump and Rubio have also been attacked by super PAC Right to Rise USA, which supports former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential race.

Meanwhile, in his own TV ads, Trump has repeatedly chastised Cruz, who bested Trump to win the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

At the same time, both Trump and Cruz have been criticized by groups whose donors are not immediately apparent.

Our Principles PAC, a super PAC formed last month by a former aide to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, has spent nearly $4 million attacking Trump, according to Federal Election Commission records. Because of a quirk in campaign finance regulations, the group won’t be required to reveal any of its donors until Saturday.

Meanwhile, an Iowa-based group called the American Future Fund has spent more than $1.5 million attacking Cruz in South Carolina. Because the American Future Fund is organized as a “social welfare” nonprofit whose primary purpose isn’t influencing elections, it’s not required to disclose its donors.

“It’s really ramped up recently,” said Jeffrey Peake, a political science professor at Clemson University, of the intense battle in the Palmetto State. “South Carolina is really important for setting the stage for March 1.”

March 1 is Super Tuesday, when a dozen states will hold their Republican primaries or caucuses, including several others in the South.

Since 1980, the winner of South Carolina's Republican presidential primary has gone on to become the party's nominee every time except one.

This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.

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