What's The Point?

Dem Pollster Mark Mellman Weighs In on Negative Ads

What’s with all the Mitt-bashing? And Newt-stomping? A top Democratic pollster explains all to Judith Grey.

Whoever said “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” was clearly ignored in this week’s Florida primary.

Ninety-two percent of the ads that ran in the state were negative—in most cases, fiercely so—and of the estimated $17 million spent on more than 12,000 television commercials by the Romney campaign and his allied super PAC, only one was reported to be positive.

To find out whether this might be an indication of the type of advertising that we can expect in the general election, I spoke with leading Democratic pollster and communication strategist Mark Mellman. (For those of you who have seen Moneyball, Mellman is to public-opinion research as Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand is to baseball sabermetrics).

“There are going to be a lot of negative ads. There’s no question about it,” he said decisively—a tone that he maintained throughout the interview. “It’s pretty clear that Romney has nothing positive to say. His whole efforts are going to be tearing down the president and attacking the Democrats.”

While he attributed the prevalence of negative advertising to the fact that it “works,” Mellman also pointed out that the proliferation of negative messaging was a function of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed for the emergence of super PACs.

“One of the other reasons that the Florida advertising was so negative is because it was done by super PACs. [While] they can do a pretty good job of running attack ads, they are pretty lousy at running positive ads.”

“Why is that?” he asked, and then promptly answered: “Because they can’t coordinate with the campaign. So they don’t have access to the candidate. They can’t film the candidate doing things or talking about his or her record. So, if spending is dominated by super PACs, as it was in Florida, it is going to be overwhelmingly negative.”

While Romney outspent Gingrich in Florida by almost six to one, the commercials that seemed to have seeped into the nation’s collective consciousness were those that the former Speaker launched against the former Massachusetts governor, not vice versa.

The anti-Bain attacks, for example, were so pervasive that the Private Equity Growth Capital Council—the trade association representing private-equity firms—felt compelled to launch a chest-beating website highlighting the industry’s accomplishments.

This could lead one to speculate that perhaps by the summer—when the electorate is more focused on the general election—voters will have become a bit desensitized to criticism of Romney’s tenure at Bain, robbing the Obama campaign of a powerful line of attack.

Mellman, however, does not foresee this as a problem. “There may not be new revelations by the time we get to October and November, but there’s always some new way to bring the issue to light.”

The Democratic pollster anticipated that “we are going to hear a lot of different stories about the harm that Mitt Romney’s done to the economy.”

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He also predicted that, in conjunction with the inevitable attacks on the former governor of Massachusetts, Obama “will be doing some positive advertising” because he believes that the president has “something positive to talk about.”

While some might argue that Obama has not done enough to burnish his image, especially with respect to the economy, Mellman begs to differ. “I think he’s done a pretty good job of touting his accomplishments. We have economic numbers that are consistent with the president being reelected”—for example, the unemployment rate fell to a three-year low last month—“but we don’t have people feeling good about the economy.”

“And, if you go tell people that 'It’s Morning in America,'" the pollster continued, referencing a commercial produced for Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign, “and they don’t feel that way, they don’t conclude that they’re wrong about what they feel. They conclude that you’re out of touch.”

In response, I asked whether the theme of economic fairness—liberally drawn upon in the president’s State of the Union address last week—was one that might better form the strategic underpinning of his reelection campaign.

“I think it’s an important part of the narrative,” Mellman said. “Because there’s an economic narrative that attaches itself to Mitt Romney that’s about Mitt Romney doing well at the expense of everyone else in the country. And that stands in stark contrast to what the president’s talking about, which is an economy where everybody can succeed, everybody can do well, not just the people at the very top.”

I then proposed that a better strategic platform for the Democrats could be the one that Maureen Dowd reported as being Vice President Biden’s preferred approach: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”

The Democratic pollster laughed so hard, I assumed that he didn’t think it was such a bad idea.

But he then pensively added, “It would feel good, but I am not sure it is the right one.”