In Post-'Citizens United' World, Negative Ads More Prominent (and Successful) Than Ever

If Romney wins Florida comfortably, he is in line to pick up several contests in February. (Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

In Post-'Citizens United' World, Negative Ads More Prominent (and Successful) Than Ever

Florida latest, but not certainly last, example of the ugly impact of Super PAC outside campaign spending

All evidence coming out of Florida today suggests that Mitt Romney will win handily over rivals Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul. Whether results in the Sunshine State spell the end of the battle for the Republican presidential nomination or not, one thing made plain by a sharp Romney victory will be the prevalence of unlimited spending by outside groups, called Super PACs, and how the negative attack ads they specialize in have come to dominate elections in the United States in the wake of the Supreme Court's ' Citizens United' decision in 2010.

And what's worse than the proliferation of these groups and their ads? The fact that their carpet-bombing of the TV airwaves seems to work.

According to a study released by the Wesleyan Media Project on Monday:

The overall number of GOP presidential ads on the airwaves this election year is comparable with 2008, but who is paying for them so far has changed significantly. The influence of SuperPACs in the race for the 2012 GOP nomination is clear, with a more than 1600 percent increase in interest-group sponsored ads aired as compared to 2008. In the first presidential election cycle following the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Citizens United v. FEC, interest group involvement in the presidential air war has skyrocketed from 3 percent of all ads aired in the 2008 Republican nomination race to nearly half (44 percent) of all airings. [...] Candidate-sponsored ads, which made up 97 percent of the total in 2008, declined to 56 percent of the total this year.

Compared to his rivals, the study reports that the Romney campaign and its allies

have dominated the airwaves in Florida, airing almost 13,000 ads on broadcast television across the state, as of Wednesday, the 25th. Gingrich and his interest-group allies have aired only about 200 spots, with Paul and Santorum out of the broadcast television game.

And, as The Daily Beast points out, "A staggering 92 percent of the political ads run in Florida over the last week of the campaign have been negative." John Avlon reports:

"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.

And on the effectiveness of "going negative":

"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. There is no substitute for nuking the ever-loving shit out of the other guy." -- GOP operative Rick Wilson

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 [Rick Wilson, a legendary Republican operative and CEO of Florida-based Intrepid Media.] "They realize that the fig leaf is off--and they're using the same kind of messages, just as hard and vigorous." [...]

... [And] 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."

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'Disclosure' as Farce

Super PACs are pointing to disclosure rules to fight off charges that they have no accountability for their ads or that they diminish the quality of the election process. But, as the Christian Science Monitorreports, there are no clear guidelines for disclosure by Super PACs and plenty of lingering loopholes for them to hide their funding sources:

Super PACs can list the name of a nonprofit that is legally allowed to keep its donors secret. Or they can donate through front corporations, whose names convey no information to voters.

Restore our Future, a super PAC supporting Mitt Romney, attributed three $1 million contributions to such front corporations. One of them, Spann LLC had no apparent business activity. It was constituted soon before a $1 million contribution to the super PAC and dissolved soon after. Edward Conard, a former colleague of Mr. Romney's at Bain Capital in Boston, later came forward as the owner.

"The letter of the law is clear: Groups are to disclose who is funding them," says Michael Beckel, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. "But there are a lot of ways in which the high promise of disclosure may not be met, and voters will be in the dark more than the majority of Supreme Court justices imagined when they wrote the transparency and disclosure portions of Citizen's United."

Moreover, the timing of the deadline is not ideal, he adds. "Voters will have gone to the polls in Florida, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Iowa by midnight on Tuesday," he adds. "The GOP race could be over by the time people who know who is bankrolling it."

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