Gingrich happily echoed and underlined the attacks by the super-PAC supporting him on Romney’s record at Bain, until the furor over their accuracy forced him to renounce them. But the super-PAC kept running clips from the film in paid ads, so Gingrich could stay out of the mud, which was still flying on his behalf. Gingrich seemed reasonable even as he benefited. When Gingrich complained about TV attacks in Iowa from the pro-Romney super-PAC, Romney laughed. “My goodness, if we coordinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house,” Romney told MSNBC.
Coordinated or not, all these forces came together the week before the South Carolina primary to create a nasty, brutish war featuring every possible kind of negativity: vicious attack ads, a spurned wife, surrogates spewing bile. It was Republican Armageddon, and it had the Obamans grinning—though they’re up next. Already, the Obama campaign has had to put up its first ad in response to a Solyndra broadside from the super-PAC funded by the Koch brothers.
TV ads are still the keystone of a negative campaign—but now they’re part of an arsenal rather than the whole war. When I visited Romney’s headquarters, Stuart Stevens showed me a research report on the projected impact of TV in the 2012 election that found that less than half of those between the ages of 18 and 44 got their video content primarily from live television. With DVRs and social media blunting TV’s impact, the report says, the campaign should reduce the frequency of TV and push into “engagement-based” advertising and media like Facebook or online videos.
But in recent years, the reaction of these campaign pros to media fragmentation has simply been to run more, not fewer, TV ads to try to break through. Whereas it used to take eight replays of an ad to see movement in polling numbers, they reason, it now requires a dozen or more. In South Carolina, the super-PACs ran ads up to 22 times a day.
And there may be a more salient point: TV is the way donors measure the impact of their donations, especially to the super-PACs. “If you’re a super-PAC, you’re dependent on your contributors,” says Carville. “Somebody says, ‘Look, I raised you $5 million, hit this son of a bitch on global warming.’” The pro-Gingrich super-PAC was operating with a new $5 million from billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Given the short time horizon Gingrich had to snatch the nomination from Romney, the super-PAC needed to flex its muscles, so it promised to spend $3.4 million of the money on airing TV clips from King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town, the brutal documentary about Romney’s history of laying off workers while at private-equity firm Bain Capital—even before Gingrich disavowed the movie’s contents.
But Adelson’s check will look like chump change compared with what is coming at Obama when the primary is over. The right-wing super-PAC American Crossroads and the non-profit organization Americans for Prosperity are between them promising to raise more than $400 million.* And the Republican operative at Morton’s says that many Republicans are eager to test the theory that Obama didn’t receive his “MRI of the soul” in 2008 because the press was too besotted with “hope.” Now, he says, the gloves are off.
“There’s a real opportunity to demonstrate how people were misled,” says the operative, echoing what Romney consultants are saying privately. “I think people feel jilted, I think they feel like they went out on a date that was a real possibility of something promising and they found out that the person was a complete fucking fraud. I’m going to enjoy watching it a lot.”
At Mitt Romney’s campaign headquarters in Boston, a small crowd of staffers is stuffed in a cramped room, hunched over keyboards, surfing the Internet for news stories or flipping through video reels of Newt Gingrich or Barack Obama giving speeches. They’re monitoring every blip and burp from the opponents, constantly on the lookout for vulnerabilities, flip-flops, gaffes—ammo. On the wall, there’s a poster of a mustachioed Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in the movie Anchorman: “If the war room says it, it must be true!”
The press is still the primary driver of any campaign, and campaigns have become virtual content providers for the media, not just saturating TV and websites and social networks with paid advertisements but pumping the press with a fire hose of items resembling news. “The campaigns are in the content business,” says Steve Schmidt, “and a lot of that content is designed to control the conversation.”
The core of political messaging, whether on TV or in the online press, is the research department, which combs through databases and, in recent elections, entire catalogues of video, looking for “votes and quotes,” the raw material that can be edited into a slamming hit of embarrassing hypocrisy or contradiction, the art form perfected by The Daily Show. The Romney campaign, managed by a former opposition researcher, Matt Rhoades, who is legendary for leaking information on opponents to his pal Matt Drudge, the conservative newshound, employs teams of videographers and has three in-house editing bays for churning out advertisements and videos, a virtual production studio for destroying Obama.
*This article has been corrected to show that Americans for Prosperity is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, not a super-PAC .