Frontrunners stay (mostly) positive as super PACs do dirty work

at 06:30 AM ET, 12/28/2011

The leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination continue to churn out positive television ad after positive television ad, even on the eve of the first ballots being cast in a close race in Iowa.

So is this the end of negative campaigning?

Hardly.

According to the Post’s handy “Mad Money” campaign ad tracker, the ad war between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich has been a veritable love fest. Every ad run by Gingrich has been positive, and 87 percent of Romney’s ads have been positive.

“I think the people of Iowa have a great opportunity in the caucus to send a signal to the country that negative ads written by dishonest consultants on behalf of irresponsible candidates don’t deserve getting votes,” Gingrich told CNN on Tuesday, pledging to stay 100 percent positive.

Ask the voters of Iowa what they think of this positive campaign, though, and you’ll probably elicit laughs. In fact, a deluge of negative ads from outside groups — otherwise known as super PACs — continues to flood their airwaves. The ads just aren’t run or approved by the candidates themselves.

Gingrich himself will soon benefit from his own negative ad thanks to a super PAC supporting his campaign.

In fact, while Romney and Gingrich have run almost all positive ads, negative ads still outnumber positive ones by a two-to-one margin overall in the GOP presidential race.

It’s all a reflection of the new reality of political campaigns: The advent of super PACs and the proliferation of 24/7 political news coverage mean negative information no longer needs to come from a candidate’s ads. Leading candidates like Gingrich and Romney are much better served arguing through the constant media coverage they get (and they have done that) and letting super PACs get down and dirty on the airwaves.

“It’s become football: the offense is a completely different team than the defense now,” said GOP media consultant Alex Castellanos. “That’s how super PACs have changed politics.”

At the same time, there is a point where Romney and Gingrich may need to get dirty.

Democratic ad-maker Mark Putnam noted that House and Senate candidates often let their national party committees and their independents expenditure (IE) arms run the negative ads, while the candidates focus on a more positive message. Which works, to a point.

“Sometimes the campaigns decide the IE isn’t delivering the negative (message) the way they’d like, so they elect to run their own negative,” Putnam said. “The same is true in a presidential campaign, with the super PACs and other IEs playing that role.”

The question then is, as the presidential campaign progresses, do Romney and Gingrich feel the need to reclaim control of that message and start running negative ads?

Maybe or maybe not.

The good thing for these two frontrunners is that most of these groups — the big money ones, at least — are run by their former aides, which means they have a window into what kind of messages the candidate might prefer.

There is also the reality that any negative ads they put out could be drowned out by the super PAC ads. After all, the super PACs are currently spending more money on ads than the candidates.

If we do start seeing negative ads from Gingrich and Romney, it is more likely a reflection of one of two realities.

One, the candidate is losing momentum, getting desperate, and needs to attack his opponent by whatever means necessary. (This is why we have seen many more negative ads from the likes of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, who need some help to get back on track.)

Or two, they feel that the super PACs or media aren’t doing a good enough job conveying their negative messages. This, of course, would also suggest they are struggling overall in the race.

Until one of those two things happen, we would expect Romney and Gingrich to keep running positive ads and fighting their battles (or rather, letting others fight them) elsewhere.

“Frontrunners will only run negatives when there is no other choice: when their super PACs can’t raise any money or positives are superfluous,” Castellanos said. “In other words, when they’ve lost.”

Gingrich divorce account disputed by ex-aides: Two former Gingrich staffers tell Bloomberg their ex-boss is lying when he says his first wife wanted a divorce back in 1980. Both worked in Gingrich’s congressional office in the 1980s.

Unsealed court records this week showed that Gingrich filed for divorce from Jackie Battley, and that the then-congressman’s wife responded that she “does not desire one at this time.” The presidential candidate has repeatedly said that it was his wife who wanted the divorce.

“It’s totally untrue that she wanted the divorce, and Newt knows that,” said former Gingrich staffer Dot Crews.

“It’s just about the biggest mistake they could make to say these things, because they are so easy to check up on,” added Dolores Adamson. “I get very angry at his lies.”

Perry files suit to get on Virginia ballot: Perry has filed a suit in federal court challenging the requirements that got him booted from the Virginia primary ballot.

Spokesman Ray Sullivan said the Virginia law unconstitutionally restricts “access to the ballot, and we hope to have those provisions overturned or modified to provide greater ballot access to Virginia voters and the candidates seeking to earn their support.”

Both Perry and Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot, due to newly stringent enforcement of rules requiring 10,000 valid signatures. Only Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) met the standard.

Perry changes position on abortion: Perry says he’s had a change of heart on abortion, and he now opposes it in all circumstances.

Previously, Perry professed support for abortion in the cases of rape, incest or the life of the mother. Now he opposes all of them.

The presidential candidate said he changed his mind after seeing Mike Huckabee’s abortion documentary and meeting one of the women who was featured in the film.

Fixbits:

The pro-Romney super PAC is now up to $1 million worth of ad time in Florida and South Carolina.

Perry brings Joe Arpaio to the campaign trail.

A special master will draw the new congressional map in Connecticut in a win for Republicans.

Must-reads:

For Romney, stealth campaign brings real hopes of winning Iowa” — Philip Rucker, Washington Post

Gingrich fights back, aiming at Romney as Iowa caucuses heat up” — Dan Balz and Amy Gardner, Washington Post

How Can Romney Lose?” — Nate Silver, New York Times

The Retooled, Loose Romney, Guessing Voters’ Age and Ethnicity” — Ashley Parker and Michael Barbaro, New York Times

Political endorsements don’t mean a lot — unless you’re Donald Trump” — Vanessa Williams, Washington Post

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

 
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