03/08/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2012

Super PAC Ad Men Have Long History Of Republican Attack Politics

WASHINGTON -- The 2012 Republican presidential primary campaign has been the most negative in recent memory. The main culprits are well-funded super PACs, which have plastered the airwaves with attack ads.

So far this election cycle, the major super PACs supporting GOP candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have spent more than $57 million on the campaign, largely on television ads. Most of those ads -- 72 percent, as of Feb. 20 -- have been negative, according to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group.

"What we're finding is that most of the ads run by super PACs are negative," said Washington State University professor Travis Ridout, a member of the Wesleyan Media Project, which also tracks campaign advertising.

Super PACs are, by their nature, built for negative advertising. Operating at arm's length from the official campaigns, they can run attacks that their favored candidate would rather not have attached to his name. They carry innocuous-sounding names like Restore Our Future and the Red, White and Blue Fund, and require a curious voter to pore over campaign records to determine the sources of their money.

The creative minds behind the super PAC ads are often even more difficult to identify.

The pro-Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future, has employed at least four ad firms. One of them, Empire Creative LLC, lists an address in Manhattan where a Mailboxes Etc. is located. The best-known Winning Our Future ad, "When Mitt Romney Came to Town," was cut by Cicero Media, a firm that has aided congressional Republicans and created spots for businesses trying to influence legislation. That ad, which assailed Romney's business record, was itself based on a 27-minute documentary created by a little-known political operative with a history of moving in secretive Republican circles.

Super PAC support for Ron Paul has been scant compared to that for other candidates. The highest-spending group backing Paul's campaign, Endorse Liberty, has shunned television ads in favor of online advertising across Google, Facebook and StumbleUpon.

Both Romney and Santorum, however, have been boosted by television ads from their respective super PACs, which, despite their crude visuals, came from two of the most sought-after advertising firms on the Republican side of the aisle in Washington.

The men behind those firms, McCarthy Hennings Media and SRCP Media, have created some of the most notorious ads of the last 25 years. In the past, those ads targeted Democrats, but now the firms have turned their fire inwards, as the Republican super PACs try to blast each other's chosen candidate into oblivion.


"Larry McCarthy is playing an important role here," former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis told The Huffington Post. "So it's obvious what's going on."

Dukakis would know about McCarthy, who runs McCarthy Hennings Media, the ad firm employed by the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future. McCarthy crafted the infamous Willie Horton spot, which helped sink Dukakis in his race against then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

The ad featured the glaring mug shot of convicted murderer Willie Horton, who escaped prison after being granted a weekend pass under a furlough program that Dukakis had supported as governor, and later raped a woman and stabbed her fiance. The Horton ad tapped into voters' anxieties about race and crime (Horton was black and the woman he raped was white) and was widely criticized for inflaming racist sentiments.

Before making the Horton ad for the National Security PAC, McCarthy had spent the previous five years of his career making political ads for the maestro of media distortion and attack politics, longtime GOP media consultant Roger Ailes.

"You didn't get elected on details. ... You got elected on themes," said Ailes during President Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign. That lesson learned is evident in the ads created by McCarthy and other Ailes disciples.

One of those ads that famously fudged the details was a spot for Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the current Senate minority leader, that helped him win his first Senate election in 1984. It's an ad that Ailes, who now runs Fox News, and McCarthy have both taken credit for.

The ad featured a man being pulled along by bloodhounds in search of Democratic Sen. Walter Huddleston, who the ad claimed spent little time in Washington doing his job. As noted in a recent New Yorker profile of McCarthy, Huddleston actually had a 94 percent attendance rate that year.

"Larry McCarthy has been responsible for some of the most negative ads in American history," said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

McCarthy Hennings Media did not respond to a request for comment.

A similar notoriety has come to define Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC. The group has been nicknamed the "Death Star" by the media for its emulation of the "Star Wars" movie menace: Instead of planets, Restore Our Future zeros in on Romney's closest competitors and eviscerates them with negative ads.

"In state after state, whoever has popped up on the Republican side has been the recipient of very hard-hitting attacks," West said. "It's not just the negativity, but a lot of the attacks have been misleading or take things out of context."

In December, when Gingrich surged to a huge lead in the national polls ahead of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Restore Our Future began an unprecedented assault. Its ads brought up Gingrich's climate change efforts with Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore, his work for Freddie Mac, the non-lobbying lobbying he did for health care companies and the $300,000 penalty levied on him for congressional ethics rules violations. Gingrich collapsed in the polls as the Iowa contest approached.

After Gingrich bested Romney in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21 and surged again into the national lead, Romney's super PAC ally spent $10.9 million across Florida -- the biggest negative campaign waged in one state by an independent group in primary history. Gingrich was swamped by the negative ads and lost badly in the Sunshine State.

In recent days, Restore Our Future has set its sights on Santorum, the latest candidate to challenge Romney's frontrunner status, assailing Santorum for voting to let "violent felons regain the right to vote" and for admitting at a recent debate that he voted for bills that included funding for Planned Parenthood.

According to Federal Election Commission records, the "Death Star" has spent some $30 million on advertising, phone banks and voter mobilization efforts targeting Romney's opponents so far this election cycle. That compares to the slightly under $1 million the group reports spending on pro-Romney efforts.

The super PAC air war has led Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the most recent Republican presidential nominee and a Romney endorser, to lament that the primary "is like watching a Greek tragedy." McCain decried the negative tenor fueled by the super PACs. "Now it's just exchanging cheap shots and personal shots followed by super PAC attacks," he said.


No one in Las Vegas was betting back in 2011 that Santorum would make it to the final four in the Republican primary. Donors to the pro-Santorum super PAC, the Red White and Blue Fund, weren't going to count him out, however. The few hundred thousand dollars thrown in initially by investment manager Foster Friess, a longtime Santorum backer, paid for the much-needed television ads to introduce the woefully underfunded Santorum to Iowa voters. In the modern era, no candidate has ever raised so little money and won the Iowa caucuses.

Those initial spots were largely positive, but lately the super PAC's ads have turned negative as well. When Restore Our Future went after Santorum's voting record, the Red White and Blue Fund hit back in a spot contending that Romney's signature health care law in Massachusetts, which featured an insurance mandate, was "the blueprint for Obamacare."

The masterminds behind the Red White and Blue Fund's advertising hail from the top-shelf Republican ad firm of SRCP Media. Like McCarthy's firm, SRCP traces its fame back to the 1988 Bush-Dukakis campaign when its late founder, Greg Stevens, created the second-most famous ad, behind the Willie Horton spot, of that presidential race.

Also like McCarthy, Stevens learned at the feet of Roger Ailes. When Ailes won a contract from the 1988 Bush campaign, he brought Stevens on to make ads. In a 2000 interview with Advertising Age, Stevens credited his success to Ailes' teaching.

Stevens would make his mark with one of the first spots to take an opponent's own public relations footage and turn it against him. Inspired by the PR disaster that came to be known as the "Snoopy incident," Stevens took the footage of a helmeted Dukakis riding circles in a tank and had an announcer read a list of ways that the Bush campaign claimed Dukakis would be bad on defense. The tank ad was such a hit that the Dukakis campaign produced a response ad attacking the Bush campaign's negativity.

Stevens went on to found his own company, now known as SRCP Media, which would grow to become one of the biggest Republican ad firms.

The firm's most famous work after the tank ad came in 2004, when it took on a little-known group of Vietnam veterans as a client.

That year, a member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth saw a SRCP Media partner speaking on television and decided to reach out for help in cutting an ad. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a 527 political organization funded by a group of wealthy Republican donors who are now investing in super PACs, accused the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, of lying about his decorated Vietnam War service.

The resulting series of ads and the statements contained within were later determined to be false and misleading, but they consumed the Kerry campaign in the month before the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "Swiftboating" would eventually joined the political lexicon as a term for misleading negative advertising from an independent group.

Eight years ago, Swift Boat Veterans spent $22 million on its ad campaign, far less than what the Republican presidential super PACs have already burned through this primary season.

Stevens died in 2007 from brain cancer. SRCP Media is now run by remaining partners Paul Curcio, Erik Potholm and Ben Burger. The firm declined to comment for this story.


Political ads don't have to be negative to be effective. In fact, the ad McCarthy has called his "perfect spot" told a positive tale boosting President George W. Bush for reelection in 2004.

"Ashley's Story," as the ad was called, told the tale of a teenage girl whose mother died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Ashley, 16, and her family recount how she met Bush at an Ohio parade and told him her story. He proceeded to console her with a hug, which was captured by the local press. In the ad, Ashley drives home the message in a quavering voice: "He's the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe."

Progress for America Voter Fund, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group funded by a set of wealthy benefactors similar to those behind Restore Our Future, spent $14.2 million on the ad, making it the biggest ad buy of the entire 2004 cycle.

"Ashley's Story" was the perfect spot in McCarthy's eyes, according to the New Yorker profile. He even created a near carbon copy for the 2008 Romney campaign in an ad titled "Searched."

That spot featured Robert Gay, a onetime Romney business partner, retelling the story of how, after Gay's daughter disappeared, Romney shut down Bain Capital and commandeered 50 employees to search for her in New York City. The ad offered the same message about a powerful man using that power to protect another man's daughter. Just as in "Ashley's Story," the ad featured the quavering voice of a person thankful for the protection provided by the candidate.

In February, "Searched" was republished by the Romney super PAC, in potential violation of federal campaign finance law barring the republication of campaign materials, as Restore Our Future sought to portray a positive image of Romney in Michigan and Ohio.

Yet negative ads still dominate. The republished ad has been the only positive spot run by Restore Our Future in the entire campaign.

Negative electoral advertising has been on the rise ever since the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC freed corporations and unions from political spending bans. A subsequent lower court ruling (SpeechNow.org v. FEC) based on the Citizens United decision freed individuals to pool unlimited resources with political action committees and sparked the creation of super PACs.

The Wesleyan Media Project found that the November 2010 election, the first after the Citizens United ruling, was the most negative in at least the past decade. One study showed that 87 percent of all ads by independent groups were negative, compared to 36 percent of ads from the candidates. The Wesleyan project's preliminary findings for 2012 show that trend only increasing.

While there is no definitive explanation for the rise in negativity, political ad watchers have long noted that advertising by independent groups, like those for which McCarthy and SRCP Media have worked, tends to lean negative. The massive rise in spending by super PACs has only exacerbated that trend.

"The candidates are held more accountable, and they risk a backlash if they're running a negative ad where voters turn against the candidate," the Wesleyan Media Project's Ridout said. "But the Red White and Blue Fund -- who knows what the Red White and Blue Fund is?"

One preliminary study by Dartmouth government professor Deborah Brooks found that candidates who ran attack ads focusing on their opponent's personal traits did indeed face a backlash from viewers while independent groups running the same ad did not. This finding suggests that an attack ad by an independent group may get its message to the public without tainting the candidate who wants that message to be heard.

The barrage of negative ads, while punctuating the story of the Republican primary, is hard to pin down as the single reason for any one candidate's victories. John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University, explained that with so many "different messages" in the ads and so many other factors, no single negative ad can be credited or blamed for a candidate's win or loss.

"It's like three guys trying to push a car down a street," Sides said. "Which one did the most pushing?"

Advertising in general, not just negative advertising, can have a strong determinative effect in a primary election, Sides continued. "Primaries offer a lot of opportunity for ads to make a difference because people's attitudes toward candidates are not particularly intense or strongly held, and so there's a lot of opportunity to be persuaded," he said. "You also have big differences between the candidates in how much they can spend and how much they're raising."

The ad firms, for their part, are making decent money from the billionaire-funded super PAC spending sprees. McCarthy Henning Media pulled in approximately $475,000 as of March 7. SRCP Media's work reaped a bigger haul, likely thanks to its in-house ad buying team. It received $3.68 million as of March 7, although most of that money was funneled through the group to pay television stations for ad buys.

The best news for the ad creators is that there appears to be no end in sight to the negative ads.

"Typically we see the really hard-hitting stuff in a general election more than a primary," said West of the Brookings Institution. "It tells me that the general election is going to be very nasty."

For his part, Dukakis offered some advice to the candidates in the primary contest and whoever makes it to the general election. "I made a decision to not respond," Dukakis said, referring to the Willie Horton ad. "You have to have a strategy to respond to this, and you gotta do it in the same medium that they're doing it. We all learned from '88, needless to say."



Memorable Ads From Larry McCarthy And SRCP Media