Super PACs don’t have to follow the “stand by your ad” provision in campaign law, which requires candidates to state clearly that they approve of an ad’s message. Candidates, in fact, have tried to deflect blame for the contest’s tone, saying they don’t have control over the spots run by the PACs.
But many strategists have noted that the groups, typically run by former aides to the candidates, can easily glean cues from the campaigns.
“There are so many forms of communication other than picking up the phone and saying, ‘We like that negative ad — double the buy,’ ” said one Republican media consultant who worked for a candidate no longer in the race. “It’s not that hard to have a symbiotic relationship.”
Studies of advertising before the 2008 race are not directly comparable but generally show that the Democratic primaries in 2004 and 2008 were also less negative than this year’s contest.
Even before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, the race turned negative. The first ad from Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing Romney, said that “Newt Gingrich has more baggage than the airlines.”
That, several GOP strategists said, signaled to the other candidates that they would need to go negative.
“I think that staying positive through Iowa, through $3.5 million of negative attacks, proved you either have to unilaterally disarm and leave the race or you have to at least bring up your competitor’s record,” Gingrich said at a debate last month.
Romney’s campaign and the super PACs behind him have also dominated the airspace, running more than half of all the advertising in the race.
“Mitt Romney has resorted to a carpet-bombing strategy that helped him win some early primaries,” said Mark McKinnon, a political strategist for McCain and George W. Bush, “but his favorable impression among independents has collapsed. Seems likely there is some correlation.”
Obama’s advisers are looking on with glee as the Republicans bash one another. Romney in particular has been thrown off his strategy of attacking the president as he moves to take down other Republicans.
“He spent last year saying he was just going to make a general-election argument, and I don’t think anyone would say that’s what he was doing for the past three months,” said one Obama adviser. “He’s been trying to get to the right of Gingrich and Santorum.”