Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 11:51 AM
Mitt Romney has bigger problems than finishing third in two Republican primaries in the Deep South this week. His aggressive campaign style may be winning him the GOP delegate race, but it is making voters think less of him.
Romney and the super PACs that support him are outspending his opponents by two and three times on TV ads they are purchasing in many states. But those negative onslaughts are sinking his approval ratings, polls show.
Thirty-four percent of registered voters had an "unfavorable" impression of Romney, according to a CBS News/New York Times nationwide poll in mid-January. That's nearly 11 points higher than the survey found in June, shortly after the GOP debates started. Only 21 percent of voters had a positive impression of Romney in January's poll.
At the same time, analysts say the mudslinging might hurt Republican voter turnout in November in key swing states, including Iowa, Florida, Nevada and Colorado.
While conservatives are quick to point out that then-Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama slugged it out through June 2008 during their epic Democratic primary battle, their ad wars weren't nearly as vitriolic. And the battle didn't leave Obama nearly as badly scarred, according to studies and analysts.
Obama aired more TV ads during the 2008 primary than any other candidate, but only 4.8 percent were negative -- a lower percentage than any of his rivals, according to a study by Travis Ridout, a Washington State University associate professor of politics who leads the nonpartisan Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes campaign advertising.
Obama's disapproval rating hovered at about 22 percent from May 2007 through February 2008, according to CBS News/New York Times polling of registered voters.
Ridout called "atypical" the penchant of Romney and his supporters to focus their negative advertising on fellow Republicans: "Certainly, we're seeing more intra-party negativity than we have in the past."
Part of the GOP primary negativity is rooted in the rise of super PACs. A series of court decisions paved the way for the independent political campaign groups to accept unlimited donations from corporations and individuals -- and become attack dogs for candidates.
The largest super PACs supporting the leading campaigns have spent $57 million through mid-February -- most of that on TV ads -- and 72 percent of those ads were negative, according to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group.
There's another reason that Romney's supporters have relied on the bare-knuckled attacks: They work.
When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's campaign was gaining ground before the Iowa caucuses in January, a super PAC supporting Romney used negative ads to pound Gingrich down to the middle of the finishers.
The same thing happened when former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was leading Romney in Michigan and Ohio. Likewise, a super PAC supporting Gingrich called Winning the Future bombarded the airwaves with anti-Romney TV ads in South Carolina -- one of two states that Gingrich has won.
"It can be an effective short-term tactic -- (Romney) hurt Santorum much worse than he hurt himself," said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster who is unaffiliated in the presidential campaign.
"But this is the dilemma that Romney has: He's got to go negative in the short-term, but long-term it could come back to hurt him," Tulchin said.
It is already hurting him among independent voters. A nationwide survey of registered voters from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center this week found that 49 percent of independent voters disapproved of Romney. In November, that number was 42 percent.
At the same time, Romney is alienating his rivals -- which may make unifying the party harder to do should he fall short of the required number of delegates to become the GOP nominee by the party's convention in August.
"For someone who thinks this race is inevitable, he spent a whole lot of money trying to be inevitable," Santorum said during his victory speech Tuesday night
(Contact Joe Garofoli at email@example.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)
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