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Negative ads aimed elsewhere

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / January 2, 2012
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DES MOINES - With all the crossfire involving the other candidates in the race, Mitt Romney is practically getting a pass in the nasty media war leading up to Iowa’s GOP caucus votes tomorrow.

Although the former Massachusetts governor is at the top of recent polls, he has been, remarkably, at most a secondary target in the free-for-all, helping him to maintain steady support over the final weeks. Candidates appear to have conceded a top spot in Iowa to Romney and have instead focused on raising doubts about other rivals competing for the second, third, and fourth spots.

“This is unprecedented for its negativity,’’ former journalist David Yepsen said of the onslaught of harsh messages. “It’s hard to figure out who is doing the attacking and to what end, and they’re double-barreling the attacks on two or more candidates,’’ said Yepsen, who covered nine caucus campaigns for the Des Moines Register before moving to academia in 2009. “I’ve never seen that before. We’ve never had this volume [of negative ads] or this much complexity.’’

The television ads are so thick on the airwaves and cable that it is difficult to keep track of all the sniping going on. Complicating matters further is the fact that many of the ads are produced by opaquely named super PACs, the new spending vehicles bankrolled by interests and individuals whose identities have not yet been disclosed in most cases.

One of the super PACs, Restore Our Future, supports Romney and has dropped more than $3.2 million in advertising, nearly all of it negative and mostly aimed at Newt Gingrich, who once led the Iowa field in the polls. Although the super PAC allies of Romney have taken out the long knives to carve up the former House speaker, Romney’s campaign is running a sunny, upbeat closing spot with patriotic themes and cornfields.

Restore Our Future has sprayed Iowa with a series of ads enumerating the items of Gingrich’s “baggage,’’ including a $300,000 ethics penalty, the $1.6 million in consulting work he did for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, and flights from conservative orthodoxy on major policy issues like climate change and immigration. The pro-Romney group and a heavy TV assault by Ron Paul’s campaign have sent Gingrich’s poll numbers into freefall.

Restore Our Future is the only one to disclose its early donors through the first half of last year. The other super PACs - including ones helping Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator; Governor Rick Perry of Texas; and Representative Ron Paul of Texas - became active later and, along with Restore Our Future, are supposed to disclose contributors during the second half of 2011 to the Federal Election Commission on Jan. 31.

At the same time that Romney’s friends are pummeling Gingrich, Perry has taken shots at Santorum, who has zipped past him in recent polls, in one radio ad and Internet video knocking him for inserting budget earmarks.

In a TV spot, Perry swipes at past and present members of Congress in the race - Santorum, Gingrich, Paul, and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

Paul, meanwhile, takes a shot at Gingrich (called a “serial hypocrite’’) and Romney (called a “flip-flopper’’) in an ad with an upbeat finish in which a narrator, in vaguely messianic terms, calls Paul “the one we’ve been looking for.’’

Muddying matters further, the National Organization for Marriage, in a TV spot, assails Paul as “a radical who would destroy traditional marriage.’’ Paul opposes a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, preferring instead to leave it to the states to decide.

Gingrich often complains about the pro-Romney group’s assault on him. Over the weekend he accused Romney of trying to buy the election. Gingrich has pledged to run only positive ads promoting his self-styled “campaign of ideas.’’ His TV spots have been positive, most recently featuring Gingrich laying out an economic plan of lower taxes and fewer regulations to revitalize the economy and spirit of entrepreneurship.

Romney has maintained that he has no control of Restore Our Future because, under the law, super PACs may not coordinate expenditures with a candidate’s campaign. However, several former aides of Romney are top staffers at the PAC.

The closest thing to a negative ad in support of Gingrich came from Winning the Future, a super PAC that supports him. The group has spent more than $780,000 in Iowa advertising, most of it purely positive. But in a late spot, the super PAC poked at the “liberal Republican establishment,’’ a veiled jab at Romney.

“The Republican establishment wants to pick our candidate,’’ a narrator says. “When a principled conservative took the lead, they outspent Newt Gingrich 20 to 1, attacking him with falsehoods.’’

Based on a report by the Associated Press and recent filings with the FEC, at least $13 million has been spent on TV ads in the campaign. Well over $8 million has been spent by super PACs and other groups, a review of FEC independent expenditure reports shows, and that doesn’t include at least $250,000 spent on ads in Iowa by Citizens United hawking a documentary film about Ronald Reagan that the group made with Gingrich. It features Gingrich and his wife, Callista, praising Reagan reverentially, interspersed with snippets of memorable remarks by the conservative icon.

Over the weekend, Gingrich received another boost from Newsmax, a conservative media outlet, which is airing a half-hour special on “major broadcast outlets’’ across Iowa, hosted by Michael Reagan, son of the late president, who says Gingrich is the candidate who can “continue my father’s vision.’’ A recent analysis by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group found that Gingrich was attacked in 45 percent of political ads airing in Iowa and mentioned positively in only 6 percent.

Of Gingrich’s attempt to turn the other cheek in response to the onslaught, David Perlmutter, a professor of political communication at the University of Iowa, remarked: “It’s easier to do damage in political ads than it is to undo it.’’

“There’s no question the anti-Gingrich barrage has had an effect, on the middle-aged who have some memory of Gingrich and are being reminded of some of his problems in the past, and on younger voters not familiar with him for whom these ads are forming a first impression,’’ Perlmutter said.

The lack of disclosure about the sources of super PAC money - they won’t file until Jan. 31, the day of the Florida primary - “sort of subverts democracy,’’ he said. “It’s turned things upside down; as a voter, you don’t know who is saying what and to what motivation.’’

Televised broadsides are an extremely inefficient way to reach the roughly 3 to 4 percent of Iowans who will actually caucus tomorrow night, but the polls indicate that negative ads clearly work, even in the small political universe of a caucus.

“If there was ever any doubt as to whether negative ads work, there isn’t in this cycle,’’ said Dennis Goldford, a longtime professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines. “They have simply eviscerated Gingrich. They filleted him and laid him open, and you see the collapse in the poll numbers.’’

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at brian.mooney@globe.com.

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