What these negative tacticians are attempting to do is to simplify. Psychologists talk about the “availability heuristic,” the tendency of a person to judge something, or someone, by the most readily available information. If viewers are told in a well-produced movie, for instance, that Romney laid off workers at a factory to enrich himself while running private-equity firm Bain Capital—regardless of whether it was three or four instances out of 100, or whether he ultimately created more jobs than he destroyed—they’ll tend to assume the single illustration demonstrates the greater truth because it’s the most immediate example.
The best way to exploit the availability heuristic, political consultants know, is to find the unstable territory between the legitimate facts and a smear. The notorious Willie Horton ad, made in support of George H.W. Bush by a PAC following the strategy of legendary Republican hatchet man Lee Atwater, claimed that Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis oversaw a furlough program that led to the release of a convicted murderer who then, in 1987, raped a woman and stabbed her boyfriend. The ad was devastating, tarring Dukakis as weak on crime and ultimately felling him in the election—despite the facts that Dukakis had inherited the program from the previous governor and that Willie Horton was initially imprisoned as an accessory to a murder, not as the killer.
The ad worked, in part, because the press didn’t question it. In the next four years, however, the ad became notorious, a cautionary tale about race-baiting and low blows, a backlash that constrained Bush from going negative in 1992 against Bill Clinton for fear he’d remind voters of the cynical Horton ad.
When the chips are down, however, there’s no other choice than to go negative. And in 2004, with George W. Bush’s polling numbers plummeting over his handling of the Iraq War, Karl Rove saw that the only way to turn his negative numbers into virtual positives was to completely destroy and discredit Senator John Kerry. An independent group, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, partially funded by a longtime associate of Rove’s, employed negative TV ads and a best-selling book to discredit Kerry’s war record in Vietnam, undermining his primary selling point in the campaign. But the coup de grâce was a negative ad Kerry himself helped create: “Windsurfing” used the singularly damning video of Kerry tacking back and forth on a sailboard off Nantucket, solidifying the Rovian attack line that he was a flip-flopper—and thus reelecting the least popular president in modern times.
“It was sort of amazing,” marvels Bill Burton, a senior strategist at Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama super-PAC. “I think people will look back at that election for a long time, that [Bush’s] approval rating was in the forties and he won.”
What made the attacks explode in the national consciousness wasn’t how often they ran on TV but how they were amplified in the press, which treated them as controversial news and, in the case of Fox News, as completely legitimate. The goal, says Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, is to get the media to cover a piece of campaign propaganda “through the prism of fairness and hopefully lead to a discussion that breaks in your favor.”
When Romney ran his first TV ad against Obama and used a quote taken out of context—a clip of Obama characterizing John McCain’s attitude toward the economy and not his own—an Obama spokesman complained about it and the media gave airtime to the dustup. The upside of the coverage outweighed any blowback, at least initially. “We spent $120,000, and it ran on one station in New Hampshire,” a Romney insider told me. “They totally took the bait.” But there was an unseen price: When Romney was later quoted, out of context, saying he enjoyed firing people who worked for him, the line was seen as fair game.
How the target reacts, of course, is also part of the equation. Kerry was famously flat-footed in responding to Bush’s attacks, which allowed the attacks to stick. And even Romney flailed under the assault from his own quote, which some Republicans saw as a test case about whether he could take the punches Obama would soon deliver. “If he had said that during the general [election], they would have had that on TV the next day,” says the operative at Morton’s.
In keeping with the negative logic, Gingrich’s reaction to Romney’s attacks was to reverse course and retaliate in kind against Romney, launching a massive advertising assault in advance of the South Carolina primary. Or rather, he let the super-PAC supporting him, Winning Our Future, do it for him. The super-PACs are legally barred from communicating with the campaigns they support, even though most are run by former staffers, as Gingrich’s is. “Super-PACs are a version of a political condom,” says James Carville, the legendary political strategist and TV analyst. “They give some measure of protection.”