A few days before the January 31 Florida Republican primary, a number of Mitt Romney’s top aides took to the pages of the New York Times to brag about how they had destroyed Newt Gingrich. The former House Speaker had beaten Romney badly just a few days earlier in South Carolina; a loss in Florida might have unalterably changed the GOP race. So the Times reported that “a team of some of the most fearsome researchers in the business, led by Mr. Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, spent days dispensing negative information about Mr. Gingrich.”
That was an understatement. Team Romney not only dropped oppo research on Gingrich; before it was all over, Romney and his SuperPAC allies spent about $15 million on ads in Florida, three times what Gingrich and his supporters spent. And all — literally all — of it was on negative advertising. “The only positive Romney ad aired over the past week was single Spanish-language radio ad,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported when it was over. Romney’s assault completely dominated the airwaves; 68 percent of all ads aired in Florida were Romney attacks on Gingrich. It worked; Romney won Florida handily.
No matter who they supported, many Republicans felt uneasy as they watched the intra-party war unfold. Many — voters and insiders alike — remarked that when the general election campaign came around, Romney had better attack Barack Obama with the same ferocity he attacked Gingrich. (And, at other times in the primary season, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.) Otherwise, it would look like Romney took more relish in attacking fellow Republicans than in taking on Obama. Romney had won the Republican nomination in significant part by operating a death star — a machine that could rain down holy hell on opponents, if that’s what winning required. He had better give the same treatment to Obama.
Now, the general election campaign is here, and the talk is of the Obama killing machine, not the Romney death star. By most accounts, the Romney campaign is not displaying the super-aggressive effectiveness it showed in the primaries. Why? Here are five factors:
1) The facts. Romney’s business history and taxes are two issues left unresolved from the primary campaign. During the primaries, Republicans didn’t want to hear fellow Republicans criticizing Romney’s record at Bain Capital. Some characterized attacks on Romney’s Bain history as attacks on capitalism itself. Democrats and many independents don’t feel the same way, and Obama and his SuperPAC allies are relentlessly slamming Romney’s business history both nationally and in key states around the country. Likewise, while most Republicans were satisfied with Romney’s release of one year’s tax returns, and promise to release one more, that minimalist offering has met less success in the general election fight.
2) The media. In the primary race, a lot of Romney’s attacks on his GOP rivals were highlighted by the Drudge Report and picked up and commented upon by liberal-leaning media that were happy to focus on divisions inside the Republican party. Now that the race is Republican vs. Democrat, there’s a different dynamic at work. Except on days when terrible economic news is released, Obama has been remarkably successful at getting much of the media to talk about what he wants them to talk about — namely, Romney’s flaws and not the Obama economic record. Whether Romney can change that dynamic remains to be seen. Right now, it’s hurting the Republican badly.
3) The SuperPACs. In recent days, Romney’s aides have dropped hints that they believe pro-Obama outside groups — SuperPACs — have done a much more effective job against Romney than pro-Romney SuperPACs have done against Obama. Some Democrats agree. “The real surprising thing of the campaign is the Democratic Super PACs have been more influential thus far, Priorities USA, American Bridge,” said Democratic strategist James Carville on ABC last Sunday. “They have driven the debate in this campaign much more than — than the Republican Super PACs…As of July 15th, it’s the Democratic Super PACs that have basically driven this whole Bain, tax return, whatever it is.” Romney officials don’t complain for the record, but they don’t believe the GOP SuperPACs have been nearly as tough as they should have been. But given Federal Election Commission rules against coordination between a campaign and its supporting SuperPACs, they can’t just come out and say what it is they want.
4) Campaign finance laws. Romney officials believe this is the most under-reported aspect of the ad war so far. Until the Republican National Convention, which begins August 27, Romney is forbidden from spending the money he has raised for the general election. Instead, he is using money left over from the GOP primary race. Of course, Romney spent a huge amount of money — about $85 million — to win that primary race. Even though he has been raising vast amounts for the general election, he doesn’t have gobs of cash to use right now. Obama, on the other hand, didn’t have to spend any money winning a Democratic primary. The result is that Obama is hugely out-spending Romney in key states. A recent Washington Post report said Obama has outspent Romney in Florida $17 million to $2 million, as of July 6. The numbers in Ohio were $22 million to $6.5 million, and in Virginia, they were $11 million to $3 million. That is a huge, huge advantage for Obama — not unlike the advantage Romney enjoyed over his Republican rivals during the primary season.
5) Romney’s complaining. Newt Gingrich complained loudly — some called it whining — when Romney first hit him with a negative ad barrage in Iowa. Then, when Romney attacked on a far bigger scale in Florida, Gingrich reacted badly again. Privately, the Romney campaign, which at times seemed to delight at kicking the hell out of a Republican opponent, had no respect for Gingrich’s tendency to complain when attacked. Just take it and hit back harder — that was the way they saw it. Now, however, Romney is complaining about Obama’s attacks. Romney is far more self-controlled than Gingrich, but the effect is the same; he’s whining about the other guy treating him badly. It’s the same thing that happened in the primary campaign, only with Romney on the hurting end.
So at least at the moment, the vaunted Romney death star, the machine that flattened his Republican opponents, just isn’t working. Romney is trying to get traction — this week, he’s focusing on Obama’s crony capitalism — but he is struggling. To fix things, he’ll have to put out more facts about his own record, plus capitalize on more bad economic news for Obama (that’s a sure bet at this point), plus gain access to the money he’s raised for the general election, plus find a way to sharpen the SuperPACs’ games. And then he’ll have to regain the back-against-the-wall fighting spirit he had in the Florida primary. If he doesn’t, the Obama campaign will run over him.