Breaking News: Negative Ads Work

SIOUX CITY, IA - DECEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidate former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich greets people following the Fox News Channel debate at the Sioux City Convention Center on December 15, 2011 in Sioux City, Iowa. The GOP contenders are in the final stretch of campaigning in Iowa where the January 3rd caucus is the first test the candidates must face before becoming the Republican presidential nominee. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Elise Foley’s report from Iowa goes some way toward explaining what looks like Gingrichian poll slippage. The only truly visible TV ads in Iowa are positive hits for Rick Perry and SuperPAC neutron bombs against Newt Gingrich, on behalf (not legally, just obviously) of Mitt Romney. The Restore Our Future PAC has spent $3.5 million on an ad attacking Gingrich’s “baggage.” And voila:

“Newt’s got a lot of baggage,” said Betty Peterson, an 85-year-old retiree in Clear Lake. If Gingrich were the Republican nominee, Peterson said, the Democrats would not “let it go.”

That word, “baggage,” came up frequently in conversations with Iowa voters over the past few days. In a few dozen interviews with Iowa voters, several repeated the line or some form of it.

… Newt Gingrich has “a lot of baggage,” said Mary Sorenson, a Rick Santorum supporter from Galva, Iowa, adding that she has seen the ad put out by Restore Our Future.

“Where is he going to go? We need someone who can win,” Sorenson said at a Santorum event in Holstein. She added that his personal life and decisions “will be pulled out, bit by little bit. … There’s an ad about how Obama would prefer to run against Gingrich.”

There’s a new conventional wisdom that voters don’t watch ads like they used to. This year’s talked-about poll by Newhouse and Eldon found that only 57 percent of voters watched live TV and considered it their main method of video entertainment. That’s way down from the pre-TiVo, pre-iPad heyday. But 1) Iowa caucus-goers are not just “likely voters.” They are an elderly-skewing self-selected population of energized voters. And 2) TV and radio hold power over the conservative movement in a way that’s evolving, not declining. Back in the summer of 2009, I noticed that the life of Van Jones, then “green energy czar” for the White House, was a pretty obscure topic in most media. But Glenn Beck spent weeks talking about Jones. And in the August recess that year, I saw many video clips of angry town hall attendees asking members of Congress about Jones, and groaning with disbelief if the members didn’t know who he was. If you drive around Iowa and listen to Rush Limbaugh, you hear anti-Newt ads in commercial breaks. Watch Fox News at home and you see the anti-Newt “baggage” ad either as a 30-second clip or as a subject of panel discussion.