WASHINGTON — Robert Wilder, a retired beer and wine distributor in Sumter, S.C., watched with dismay down the stretch of the South Carolina primary campaign as an unprecedented $5.4 million in TV ads targeted his presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The ads, most of them run by House Speaker Newt Gingrich or by a nominally independent group led by his former aides, accused Romney of being a "Massachusetts moderate" who used to be pro-abortion and who as governor enacted a health-insurance mandate similar to the despised "Obamacare."
An extraordinary 30-minute documentary-style ad, entitled "When Mitt Romney Came to Town," profiled four businesses that his investment firm had taken over. It showed teary-eyed former workers describing how they were fired and accusing Romney of having ruined their companies.
"I liked during Ronald Reagan's time when he said, 'Do not speak ill of your fellow Republican,'" Wilder told McClatchy. "They should have a positive campaign."
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But while Wilder and many other voters have told pollsters for decades that they hate negative political ads, the South Carolina primary's outcome is the latest evidence that such ads work.
In five polls taken over nine days through Jan. 12, Romney had an average of 29 percent support with Gingrich netting 20.2 percent. When the ballots were cast Saturday, after a 10-day barrage of anti-Romney ads that South Carolina political analysts and consultants said was unique in its volume and intensity, Gingrich won with 40.4 percent of the vote, while Romney garnered 27.8 percent.
To be sure, the 22.3 point swing from Romney to Gingrich in such a short period can't be attributed only to the onslaught of anti-Romney TV ads. Gingrich had two strong debate performances in South Carolina while Romney faltered.
At the podium and on the stump, Romney stumbled repeatedly. Asked if he would follow the example of his father, former presidential candidate and Michigan Gov. George Romney, and release multiple years of his tax returns, Romney responded: "Maybe."
That answer reinforced some of the negative ads' portrayal of him as a waffler who lacks strong convictions, and it created the perception of an affluent man unwilling to reveal the extent of his wealth.
In addition, at a campaign rally, Romney minimized the $362,000 in speaker's fees he'd received between February 2010 and February 2011 as "not very much," playing into the ads' depiction of him as a rich man out of touch with most Americans. He conveyed the same image in saying he pays 15 percent in federal income taxes, a relatively low capital gains rate that showed his reliance on stocks and dividends.
Yet those stumbles would likely have been less harmful to Romney had they not been amplified by the millions of dollars in ads against him.
Lorraine Turner, a Gingrich supporter who runs a home for abused children in Greenville, said the anti-Romney ads were unpleasant but necessary.
"All of it bothers me, but I do think things need to be brought to light," she said. "I would hate to think that in the (general) election in November, we would have problems because something comes up that nobody was aware of before. This way, the shock value is not there later on."
Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich aide, is a senior adviser at Winning Our Future, the pro-Gingrich "super" political action committee that spent $3.6 million on TV ads in South Carolina, most of them attacking Romney.
Tyler, who helped create the anti-Romney ads, said they were payback for $2.6 million in ads that Restore Our Future, a nominally independent super PAC backing Romney, had spent on TV ads targeting Gingrich in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Those ads went unanswered in Iowa and New Hampshire," Tyler said. "We answered them here in South Carolina. South Carolina has picked the (Republican presidential) nominee since 1980. Newt's a Southern legislator from (neighboring) Georgia. This is where we felt we could get the most bang for the buck."
In Iowa, Restore Our Future spent almost $2.9 million on the anti-Gingrich ads portraying him as a Washington insider who'd taken $2.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac and an ethically challenged candidate "with more baggage than American Airlines."
That negative-ad campaign had a similar impact as Gingrich's scorched-earth tactics produced in South Carolina: Gingrich's 14.4 point lead over Romney on Dec. 7 became an 11.2 point deficit in the Iowa caucuses vote as Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum passed him.
Dianne Bystrom, head of the Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, has conducted extensive research into negative political ads that she said shows their effectiveness.
"Research from psychology shows that the most memorable ads always turned out to be the most negative ads," she said. "Negative ads connect more with voters whether they know it or not. Even though they say they hate them, when you ask voters during research, they tend to remember the negative ones the most. There's a reason candidates spend so much money on them."
ON THE WEB
Restore Our Future/pro-Romney PAC's ad against Gingrich:
Winning Our Future/pro-Gingrich PAC's ad against Romney:
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