Just over a week ago, after losing the South Carolina primary to Newt Gingrich by 12 points, Mitt Romney looked to be on the ropes. With a major test ahead in Florida, he had no choice but to go intensely negative — and intensely negative he went! Romney and his super PAC spent $15.4 million on TV and radio ads in the Sunshine State, where 68 percent of all campaign ads over the past week were anti-Gingrich. Romney ran exactly one positive ad. In Spanish. Last night, he beat Gingrich in Florida by 14 percent.
It may seem easy to win an election when you essentially turn all of television into your personal soapbox, but as we learned from some of the canniest minds in the slime trade, to really damage their targets, negative ads have to follow a careful line of attack. We’ve applied the maxims from our piece “The Art of the Negative Ad” to three of Romney’s most damaging anti-Gingrich spots. Here’s the logic behind the bile:
“Risk”: Exploit the weakness that is a contrast to your candidate’s strength
South Carolina exit polls aside, Mitt Romney’s most effective pitch to the GOP electorate has been that he’s the most electable man in the field. You may not agree with Romney on all the issues, this line of thinking goes, but he’s the guy with the best chance to beat Barack Obama. The ad implores us to think past the petty differences of style and focus on what the election is really about: defeating the president. To do anything else would amount an irresponsible risk.
“History Lesson”: Lead Voters, Don’t Yell at Them
Even though he retired as NBC Nightly News anchor roughly seven years ago, Tom Brokaw is still regarded as the most trusted man in news. So instead of telling voters that Gingrich is a shady, untrustworthy person, Romney’s campaign ran an ad consisting entirely of footage from a 1997 Brokaw report about Gingrich’s ethics violations as Speaker of the House, allowing the voters to draw their own conclusions based on an independent third-party source.
“Florida Families”: Turn Your Opponent’s Attacks Back Against Him
Gingrich and his super PACs have been attacking Romney for profiting off of peoples’ misery as head of Bain. Now the Romney campaign insists that it’s Gingrich who, with his ties to Freddie Mac, made money while Floridians were kicked out on the street. Only six other states in the nation had a higher foreclosure rate than Florida last year, and for those who lost a home or know someone who did, this ad hit home for them, so to speak, more than accusations about Bain.