South Carolina airwaves are being saturated by mostly negative televisions advertisements coming more from outside political groups than the candidates seeking votes in the Jan. 21 presidential primary.
Independent political committees supporting Republican candidates accounted for $3.1 million, or 60 percent of the more than $5.1 million spent on South Carolina broadcast TV advertising through Jan. 16, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political advertising. About 80 percent of the ads from the political committees are negative in tone.
The findings show how the groups, known as super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, can influence the political debate more than the candidates they support, sometimes to the consternation of the White House hopefuls. Super PACs can compete with their preferred campaign for prime air time, crowding out candidate communications and driving up the cost of ads.
“It highlights the frustration some candidates are feeling about getting their messages out,” Anthony Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, said in an interview from South Carolina. “Their ads are being swamped by the competing super PACs.”
South Carolina is the first state in this year’s Republican presidential race where super PAC spending is exceeding candidate spending on broadcast television, CMAG data show.
Super PACs and candidate committees already have spent more on television in South Carolina than during the entire campaign in New Hampshire, where candidates outspent super PACs by $1.6 million to $1.4 million before the Jan. 10 primary. In Iowa, which held the kickoff contest on Jan. 3, candidates spent $4.5 million and super-PACs spent $2.7 million on broadcast TV. The South Carolina total is still rising because the CMAG data doesn’t include ads that will run in the final four days of the race.
Outside spending has intensified in South Carolina because it’s a pivotal contest in which Mitt Romney is looking to solidify his front-runner’s position as his rivals search for a consensus alternative to slow his momentum.
Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire Las Vegas casino executive, heightened the importance of the South Carolina race by donating $5 million to Winning Our Future, a super-PAC supporting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said he will reassess his candidacy if he fails to win the Palmetto State race.
“That raised the stakes for the other super PACs to compete,” Corrado said.
Comedian Stephen Colbert, who has used his Comedy Central program to highlight the ineffectiveness of campaign finance laws aimed at reducing the influence of money in politics, poked fun at the explosion of super PACs by forming his own. It is airing ads in South Carolina to help him explore running for “president of the United States of South Carolina.”
To prove he doesn’t control the super-PAC, Colbert handed control of it over to Jon Stewart, another Comedy Central star, in a mocking televised segment of his show. Stewart’s team put up an ad that prominently features a picture of Colbert while a narrator urges a vote for Herman Cain, the Georgia businessman who withdrew from the race last month after allegations of sexual harassment against him became public.
In the Republican race, super PACs sometimes have muddled the messages candidates are trying to convey to voters who can’t distinguish between the groups and the campaigns.
After Winning Our Future unveiled a Web-based, 28-minute video last week that attacked Romney’s role as a private-equity executive at Boston-based Bain Capital LLC, Gingrich took fire from other Republicans and urged the group “to either edit out every single mistake or to pull the entire film.” The unedited commercial is still on the super PAC’s home page.
Another ad by Winning Our Future promotes Gingrich as the only Republican candidate “who stood up to Bill Clinton.” In some public appearances, though, Gingrich has touted a balanced- budget agreement he negotiated with Clinton as a reason to elect him.
“From a candidate standpoint, it’s very frustrating because obviously you’re going to know the super PAC is trying to help you, but there might be a subtlety they miss that makes you crazy,” David Hill, a Texas-based Republican pollster, said in an interview.
Though federal law prohibits coordination between super PACs and candidates, their ads are public record so each can see where the other is airing commercials and stretch their individual resources.
Super PACs can influence candidates’ strategy even if they never talk to one another — or whether they talk to each other through news conferences and debates, as Gingrich did when he advised his friendly committee to clean up the Romney documentary. While Winning Our Future hasn’t changed the film and still posts it on its home page, it hasn’t run it full length on South Carolina stations.
“The super PAC can do the dirty work for the campaign,” Adam Geller, a New Jersey-based Republican pollster, said in an interview. “They can go ahead and launch the negative advertising and really allow the campaign, at least in theory, to get their positive messages out.”
That’s the playbook followed thus far by Romney and Restore Our Future, a super PAC run by his former campaign aides. In Iowa, Romney used his campaign cash to run about $940,000 in positive ads, while Restore Our Future spent $1.2 million on commercials attacking his competitors.
The spending by the campaigns and their allied super PACs has become so intertwined, though, that the candidates are holding each other accountable and challenging one another in public forums to call on the groups to remove or correct negative ads.
“This is a huge character issue,” former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said of Romney yesterday as he called on the former Massachusetts governor to direct his super PAC to take down an ad he says is untrue.
Romney “wants to keep the veil of ‘I can’t do anything’ to perpetuate these lies out there against me and other candidates,” Santorum told TV interviewer Sean Hannity after this week’s debate in Myrtle Beach sponsored by Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.
Romney said during the debate that, while he “can’t call” his super PAC and “direct it” to remove or amend ads, “I can tell them publicly, as I can here, if there’s anything that’s inaccurate in any ads that support me, I hope they take it off and don’t run it.”
The Republican front-runner also said he would like to see all super PACs eliminated and allow the campaigns to accept unlimited contributions to manage their own messages free of outside interference.
“We all would like to have super PACs disappear, to tell you the truth,” Romney said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have people give what they would like to campaigns, and campaigns could run their own ads and take responsibility for them?”
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