No, it’s not your imagination. Things are uglier than ever in the Sunshine State.
A staggering 92 percent of the political ads run in Florida over the last week of the campaign have been negative.
“For as long as I’ve been in politics, 14 years, journalists call me and ask if this is the most negative election ad atmosphere I've ever seen,” says Kenneth Goldstein, president of Kantar Media CMAG, which tracks content and targeting of political advertising. “And every year I say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’"
“But this year it's true. This primary season is the most negative it's ever been,” asserts Goldstein. “I have absolutely never seen television advertising so negative in a Republican presidential primary.”
This tsunami of sleaze is being propelled by unprecedented advertising buys. The Romney campaign and its associated super PAC, Restore Our Future, have spent $15.3 million in Florida over the past month alone, according to Maggie Haberman of Politico. To put this in perspective, John McCain spent $11 million on ads during his entire 2008 primary campaign. Back on this side of Citizens United, Newt Gingrich and his billionaire-backed super PAC have spent “only” an estimated $3 million—giving Romney a 5–1 spending advantage in the Sunshine State.
Turn on the TV or radio in Florida these past few days and you’ll soon be subjected to the avalanche of negative ads, most of them purchased courtesy of Romney Co. The attacks come in a bewildering variety—from accusations that Newt worked with Nancy Pelosi “to support China’s brutal one-child policy” to Spanish-language ads that say Newt called Spanish “the language of the ghetto.” Fannie and Freddie have become household names. Both candidates are accusing the other of being insufficiently conservative and secretly pro-abortion. There has been public wrestling for a photo op with Ronald Reagan’s ghost, trying to claim closer association. Even Romney’s Get Out the Vote mailers are anti-Newt.
“The Romney camp made a very clear decision that this was going to be somebody's Waterloo,” says Rick Wilson, a legendary Republican operative and CEO of Florida-based Intrepid Media. “In the past, a 60–40 positive to negative ratio in ads used to be considered a heavy load. But that world is just gone.”
“The scope and effectiveness of their negative campaigning have been breathtaking—and it’s all paid off,” says Wilson. “They figured out on the fly that Romney showing fight and backbone—not being a squishy-soft, mealy-mouthed, half-assed campaigner—could bear dividends with conservatives. Because everything comes down to 'will we have a candidate who takes it hard to Obama?'… And he's narrowed the gap. Tea Party conservatives are split between Romney and Gingrich—which would have been unimaginable in South Carolina.”
“This is all because they shaped the battlefield a month in advance, starting by going off on Gingrich's baggage—Freddie and Fannie, his electability, sitting on the couch with Nancy Pelosi—and they never backed off, which is a common mistake,” concludes Wilson. “They realized that Gingrich is like a zombie—if you don't shoot him in the head he'll just go and go and go.”
The barrage of negative ads has been effective—Newt’s momentum coming off a South Carolina win seems to have been stopped by Romney’s money. It’s a play we saw in Iowa, where CMAG concluded that 45 percent of the total ads aired were anti-Newt, pushing Gingrich from first to fourth in a matter of weeks. Gingrich’s brief attempt to honor Reagan’s 11th commandment was not rewarded with popular support. In Florida, a must-win state for Romney, the decision was made to go all in: “In the last two weeks, they decided that the campaign would have the same level of negative as the super PAC,” asserts Wilson. “They realize that the fig leaf is off—and they're using the same kind of messages, just as hard and vigorous.”
Traditionally, there have been risks associated with going negative. “One of the reasons you don’t generally see a lot of negative ads in primaries is that it can be a murder-suicide,” says Goldstein. “Think of Gephardt versus Dean in the ’04 Iowa caucus. You might end up helping a third candidate, like Kerry and Edwards, in that case. But this is now seen as a two-person race—Romney versus Gingrich—and so there seems to be less to lose.”
“They realized they needed to move numbers—and they were willing to trade off some of their positives to do it,” counters Wilson. And in fact, there is evidence of the costs to both candidates covered in mud. According to The Daily Beast’s measure of Web sentiment, the Election Oracle, Romney and Gingrich enjoyed overall positive buzz before South Carolina, despite a tough campaign. But once the avalanche of negative ads was set off in Florida, both men have seen their online buzz dip into negative territory—but while Gingrich has seen his numbers stabilize, Romney has kept dipping deeper into negative territory.
This investment in negativity has been revealing in terms of answering that confounding question: who is Mitt Romney? A highly moral man by all accounts in his personal life, he is making a coldly pragmatic decision to do whatever it takes to win. He is clearly willing to campaign dirty in order to have the opportunity to govern clean. The ends justify the means. It isn’t personal—it’s business.
In the short run, these attacks might have improved Romney’s appeal to populist conservatives by showing a willingness to punch hard, an unexpected toughness. But in the long run, the question is whether this avalanche of negative ads will have a negative impact on Romney’s ability to present himself as a uniting figure capable of solving our problems and healing our divisions in a general election. Instead, it is likely to add to a growing reputation for ruthlessness from someone easily caricatured as a private-equity plutocrat—and someone who is already showing difficulty in connecting with middle-class Americans.
But with the blood lust of battle coursing through veins on Election Day, questions about the long-term costs of this will be put aside in the pursuit of the next big win. With the polls showing that Romney’s money has succeeded in stopping Newt’s momentum, this unprecedented negative-ad buy will enter the political pantheon as a positive object lesson. “You can't launch a giant, massive, negative, evil campaign like this without having all the other operational apparatus in place. It takes money and organization,” Wilson sums up. “There is no substitute for nuking the ever-loving shit out of the other guy.”