Super PAC Spending Drops Gingrich to Fourth Place in Iowa (Analysis)

Newt Gingrich - Conservative Political Action Conference - 2011
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Democratic strategists foresee a bloody battle, funded by outside interests, in the general election.

When Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich recently told an interviewer that his once surging Iowa caucus effort had imploded because, “I’ve been Romney-boated,” he essentially raised the curtain on the campaign to come.

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What the former House Speaker had in mind was the negative advertising effort mounted against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in the 2004 election by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose spots alleged the Massachusetts senator had exaggerated and even falsified his Vietnam War record. 

Similarly, in the weeks leading up to this week’s Iowa caucuses, the local cable systems, broadcast television, particularly popular standards like Dr. Phil or Wheel of Fortune and talk radio were awash in negative political advertising. 

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The ads -- paid for by "independent expenditures" by super PACs -- were designed to derail Gingrich's resurgence, and on Tuesday night  former frontrunner was trailing behind Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses. 

Veteran political analysts and operatives say Iowa has been the Spanish Civil War of presidential campaigns—a local testing ground for new technologies of conflict whose outcome forecasts a bitter and bloody struggle ahead in the general election.

"What December taught us is that the Republicans will have access to tens of millions of dollars and they will aggressively put that money to work," said Bill Burton, a former Obama aide who co-founded the Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA. He added: "With their support from hedge funds and oil companies, there is not any limit to the money they can spend." 

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The negative campaigning in Iowa was just the Republican super pacs "playing footsie," Burton said.

"As negative as it's been, it's going to get much more blistering when it comes to the general," said Burton, whose group hopes to raise $100 million from Hollywood politicos and other liberal supporters to battle the Republicans in this year's presidential election.

Just how large a role the Super PAC’s are certain to play in the coming contest between Obama and the GOP nominee can be deduced from the size of the group’s expenditures in the Republican struggle so far. Since the beginning of December, according to figures compiled by the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity, Super PAC’s associated with the Republican hopefuls have spent an astonishing $12.9 million, most of it on negative advertising and most of it in Iowa.

Two Super PAC’s organized to support Romney have shelled out 41.2%, or $4,591,273 of that total, more than $3 million for anti-Gingrich spots. Groups friendly to Texas Gov. Rick Perry have spent $3,100,594, much of it to establish that he’s the most Christian candidate in the race, while a Super PAC allied with former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has expended $1,510,473, much of that in New Hampshire.

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Super PACs are a new political phenomenon, created in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case two years ago, empowering the entities to raise unlimited sums from private donors and spend them in support of candidates.

The legal fiction is that this is done “independently” of the candidate’s formal campaign—even though most Super PAC’s are created and run by the office-seekers’ friends and, often, former employees.

What’s interesting from Romney’s perspective is that, while the negative ads clearly hurt Gingrich, they did little to increase the former Massachusetts Gov.’s share of the Iowa vote. Similarly, while Perry’s ads may have fed evangelical voters doubts about Romney’s Mormon faith or Gingrich’s marital fidelity, they did little to make people forget the Texan’s bumbling debate performances. 

What that portends is a general election in which tens of millions of dollars from Super PACs aligned with Obama and whoever his Republican opponent turns out to be go into ads whose only purpose—and effect—is to discredit the other candidate.

It’s not a pretty prospect and on Monday, Gingrich drew pointed attention to the fiction that the Super PACs’ expenditures are  “independent.” 

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The former House Speaker’s interviewers—CBS News correspondents Norah O’Donnell and Bob Schieffer—noted that Gingrich had charged Romney was being dishonest when he denied having anything to do with the avalanche of negative advertising in Iowa.

 Was he, in effect, calling Romney a liar, O’Donnell wondered?

          “Yes,” Gingrich flatly replied.

          “You’re calling Mitt Romney a liar?” O’Donnell repeated wonderingly.

         “Well, you seem shocked by it,” Gingrich responded.

         “Why are you saying he is a liar?” O’Donnell inquired.

         “Because this is a man whose staff created the PAC, his millionaire friends fund the PAC, he pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC. It’s baloney. He’s not telling the American people the truth.”

Gingrich was still fuming Tuesday in his concession speech, calling the super PAC attack ads "shameful." He warned that he was prepared to fight back against Romney in New Hampshire. 

"We're not going to go out and run nasty ads," Gingrich told the crowd. "We're not going to run 30 second gotchas."

But he added that  it is not negative "to accurately describe someone's record."  

Afterward, political pundits said they could understand Gingrich's frustration about the super PAC spending, but they thought he should have made a more gracious exit in Iowa. 

"I've never heard an attack concession speech before,"  said Ari Fleischer,  former White House Press Secretary for U.S. President George W. Bush.