Perhaps the most notable feature of the 2012 GOP Florida Primary has been the unusually high number of negative ads that have dominated the airways over the last few weeks. An analysis by Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG) has show that 92% of the ads airing in Florida in the week leading up to Tuesday’s vote were negative. When they broke it down for candidates, 95% of Gingrich’s 1,012 spots were negative, and 99% of Romney’s 3,276 were negative. However, in super PAC funded ads, 100% of those from the Romney-supporting "Restore our Future" were negative, in comparison to 53% of the Gingrich-supporting "Winning our Future." But given the ongoing discussion on the true effect of negative ads, did this have an impact in the outcome of the Florida primary?
In political science, scholars must always ensure that they are not attributing causation to a purely correlated series of events. In the game of primaries, this is no different. There are obviously many different factors that could have influenced the outcome of a vote; in early exit polls, two-thirds of Florida voters suggested that the debate last Thursday was an important factor in their decision. However, Romney’s growing lead over the last week, and the final outcome of in his favor, suggests that the ad war in Florida, which speculation indicated has been one of the most negative campaigns ever, had an affect on the way that people ended up voting.
The success of the Romney ads were largely down to their targeted nature, towards Florida residents and also towards key groups, among them including strong conservatives, Hispanics, older voters, and those who vote on the issue of electability. The success of each ad lay in their ability to portray Gingrich as the worst choice for them on the key issues that affect each group.
The inability of Gingrich to beat Obama was a common topic. An ad entitled “Smiling” appeals directly to those who vote on electability, seeking to show the flaws and baggage of Gingrich, and why Obama would like to run against him. Another stated that “beating Obama is important. Too important to risk on Newt Gingrich.”
Each GOP candidate has tried to set themselves up as the "most conservative." One pro-Romney spot discredits Gingrich’s ties to Ronald Reagan. The now-famous video spot of Gingrich and Pelosi talking about Climate Change side by side makes multiple appearances in many of the ads. On the flip side, Gingrich calls Romney “Massachusetts moderate Mitt," and Rick Santorum released an ad saying that Romney is more liberal on social issues than Ted Kennedy.
The attacks are also likely to have been incredibly effective due to their targeted nature in the Florida market. In a spot entitled “Whoops," Gingrich is shown to admit mistakes in Medicare, a key issue for senior voters, and in immigration, something many Hispanic voters will be focused on. In one ad, entitled "Florida Families," Gingrich is accused of contributing to the housing crisis, which has hit Florida extremely hard. A lack of ethics and moral fibre has also been something that both sides have tried to play up in the other team. Romney used footage from a news broadcast to highlight the hypocrisy of Gingrich’s actions during his time as speaker of the House, and a pro-Gingrich ad painted Romney as misleading and deceitful. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), though not focusing on Florida, ran an ad calling Gingrich out on “serial hypocrisy.”
Interestingly, Gingrich on Thursday tried to take a moral stand against the attacks level against him. Yet according to a new Suffolk university poll released Monday, more likely Florida voters think that Gingrich has run a more negative campaign than Romney. Looking forward, with the effect that the ads had on the Florida results, we may see an increased barrage of anti-Romney spots coming out as Gingrich continues to battle for delegates in the nomination cycle.