The Anti-Gingrich Iowa Ad Wave


Newt Gingrich’s numbers have been slipping steadily in Iowa.  The RealClearPolitics polling average shows he’s been pushed far down into third place, just ahead of Rick Perry but behind Ron Paul and Mitt Romney.  Winning the Iowa Caucus is not a prerequisite for securing the GOP nomination, but getting creamed in Iowa makes for a rough start to the primary season.

Gingrich has been complaining about the barrage of negative ads against him in Iowa, as Bloomberg News reports:

“What the campaign should really be about is who has the best ideas, who has the best solutions,” [Gingrich] told about 100 people yesterday in the garage of a security company in Davenport, Iowa. “It’s very disappointing,” he said, to see his fellow Republicans putting “out so much negative junk.”

Campaigning in Hiawatha, Gingrich called on his competitor Mitt Romney to stop airing an attack ad sponsored by a group supporting his campaign. “If you see Romney, ask him to take it off the air,” he told voters gathered in the warehouse of an apparel manufacturer.

Here’s the ad from the Restore Our Future super-PAC that Gingrich is complaining about:

The New York Times put the remarkable $600,000 spent on anti-Gingrich attack ads over the last 10 days into perspective with a graph, which shows that Restore Our Future has been doing some very heavy lifting in Iowa.  They gave Gingrich a bit of a break last Saturday, spending less than $40,000 to thrash him, which was awfully nice of them.  Rick Santorum’s super-PAC appears to be feeling its oats, too.

Gingrich, in contrast, has spent only about $130,500 on TV ads in Iowa.  Bloomberg News says that represents the entirety of his recent TV ad buys.  Gingrich sees the dark hand of the “establishment” writing all those checks to Iowa TV stations:

Asked by reporters about his drop in polls, Gingrich pointed to the spending.

“Watch TV here for two days,” he said. “You’ve had all sorts of people and all sorts of these super PACs who have been consistently running negative ads. Well, you get enough negative ads before you start answering them, your numbers go down for a while.”

His strategy of remaining positive will pay off at the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich said.

 “They’re in effect doing Barack Obama’s work,” he said. “I think the average Republican is going to be very unhappy with candidates whose entire campaign is negative.”

[…] “The establishment in both parties is panicking, just as they did with Ronald Reagan,” he said. “It will make many conservatives in Washington who are establishmentarians very uncomfortable to have their cozy world shaken as badly as the election of Newt Gingrich would shake it up.”

We were going to have our perennial argument about negative campaigning sooner or later, so we might as well get it out of the way now.  Someone always complains about mud-slinging and the negative tone of the campaign.  In a primary, the target of the negative ads often insists his rivals are doing the ultimate opponent’s work for him.  Pundits decry the ugliness of the modern political campaign, often with great sincerity and conviction.

And, because negative advertising works, candidates keep doing it.  In fact, Gingrich is responding to the tidal wave of negative Iowa ads against him by turning their very existence into a negative campaign point against his rabid opponents.

Speaking out against outright slander and lies is one thing, but decrying negative campaigns is a largely meaningless, perfunctory ritual.  There’s validity to the fear that a brutal primary will leave the eventual winner too badly scarred to face the other party’s candidate, especially when said candidate is an incumbent who didn’t have to deal with his own primary opponent.  However, there is also something to be said for facing, and overcoming, strong attacks during the primary, instead of getting decked by a haymaker punch during the general election. 

There is nothing inherently unreasonable or unethical about pointing out the deficiencies in rival candidates, as well as boosting one’s own virtues.  It’s also reasonable for the target of a televised antimatter bomb to complain about the negative tone of his opponents.  We always go through this kabuki dance because every part of it makes perfect sense.  Negative campaigns can be defeated individually, but they can never be stopped, and it seems like a waste of time to complain about the inevitable… unless you happen to be a heavily-targeted candidate trying to practice a little campaign judo.

The artillery barrage leveled at Gingrich from all comers in Iowa is a tactical move on their part.  It might backfire, if they blow too much money on him.  Six hundred grand seems like a pretty high price for getting him down into third place, especially since prominent figures in the Iowa GOP, including the governor, are openly telling the rest of the nation to completely ignore the likely winner of their caucus, Ron Paul.  As reported by Politico:

While there’s no evidence of an organized effort, public polling shows that Paul’s lead is built in large part with the support of non-Republicans – and few party veterans think such voters would stick with the GOP in November.

“They’ll all go back and vote for Obama,” predicted Beach.

The most troubling eventuality that Iowa Republicans are bracing for is that Paul wins the caucuses only to lose the nomination and run as a third-party candidate in November — all but ensuring President Obama is re-elected.

“If we empower somebody who turns around and elects Obama, then that’s a major problem for the caucuses,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

Leading Republicans, looking to put the best possible frame on a Paul victory, are already testing out a message for what they’ll say if the 76-year-old Texas congressman is triumphant.

The short version: Ignore him.

People are going to look at who comes in second and who comes in third,” said Gov. Terry Branstad. “If [Mitt] Romney comes in a strong second, it definitely helps him going into New Hampshire and the other states.”

(Emphasis mine.)  We’ve only got a couple of weeks to go before we find out if the other campaigns get the desired bang for their anti-Gingrich buck.  If he prevails, he gets to spend the rest of the primary talking about how he escaped from the shallow, mud-filled grave “the establishment” dug for him in Iowa.  Hopefully the eventual GOP nominee is ready for the howls of outrage about “negative campaigning” he or she will face from the media, as the consequence of merely mentioning Barack Obama and his record.