WASHINGTON — The 2012 Republican presidential campaign is ugly and likely to get uglier, because going negative works.
Mitt Romney and his backers bombarded Florida's airwaves over the last 10 days with searing ads that questioned Newt Gingrich's ethics and his work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Exit polls found that huge numbers of voters called the advertisements important to their decisions. They broke heavily for Romney, who crushed Gingrich in Tuesday's primary.
The negative barrage, experts said, is a preview of what's coming for November's general election.
"This is the way the game is played," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas.
Never miss a local story.
This year, however, it's being played somewhat differently. There's likely to be more money than ever before and more technology to spread attack messages fast and furiously.
Still, experts don't see this year's onslaught placing democracy in any fresh peril, though some are concerned that it coarsens the public sphere.
If anything, the ads help voters gain information, said David Mark, the author of "Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning." Most ads contain "kernels of truth," Mark said. In Florida, the ads made some voters want to research the assertions to learn more.
However, "It does cheapen the discourse," said George Edwards, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University. "Does it turn people off? That's what I worry about, but we don't know the impact. We're in the early stages of understanding it."
The effect will be watched closely this year, since "there will probably be more negative ads this year because there's more money," said author Richard Reeves, a presidential scholar.
Romney and his allies spent $15.3 million on Florida ads, and Gingrich and his allies spent $3.4 million. Of the ads that ran there, 92 percent were negative, according to Kantar Media, a consulting company.
Much of the Florida spending came from "super" political action committees, independent groups that have mushroomed since a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 permitted corporations and others to donate and spend unlimited amounts on a candidate's behalf, often with the sources undisclosed.
Mark figures the super PACs will ratchet up the level of bile.
"With candidates, there's a certain level of shame" that restrains them from making outrageous claims in their own ads, he said. But since super PACS by law can't have contact with candidates, "What do they have to lose?"
Technology is amplifying this campaign year's sour notes. In previous elections, campaigns were able to target such ads to swing states and districts.
"People in key counties in Ohio saw everything, but in Utah or Providence, there was nothing," said Fergus Cullen, the executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a conservative research group.
Nowadays, however, people everywhere can click on YouTube and see them.
The assault won't stop, because the Florida result is but the latest to suggest that negativity works. Exit polls found that 41 percent of voters said ads were important to their choices; 59 percent of those voters went for Romney, while 25 percent preferred Gingrich.
The candidates ran two types of ads: lofty spots about their views and others that ripped their opponents.
The Romney campaign cleverly timed the ads for maximum impact, said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa. For weeks, his backers ran ads about Gingrich's controversial record as the speaker of the House of Representatives. Then Gingrich routed Romney in South Carolina's primary Jan. 21.
"Normally the ads pace themselves, but in the last week the floodgates were suddenly open," MacManus said.
Romney and his supporters created a virtual narrative, with ads about Gingrich's record, then one mocking his assertion that he'd been a well-paid historian for Freddie Mac. Also appearing was an ad that showed Gingrich tying himself to President Ronald Reagan, as the ad pointed out that Reagan had mentioned Gingrich only once in his diaries.
The final blow was a weekend spot that featured Tom Brokaw from 1997, when he anchored "NBC Nightly News." It showed Brokaw reporting on the overwhelming House vote to reprimand Gingrich for ethical lapses.
"That really resonated with older voters, who remember him well," said MacManus, who teaches a course on media and politics. "I've rarely seen sequencing so effective."
Some analysts are quite sanguine about the coming onslaught: "I don't think this campaign is any more negative than in the past," Mark said.
After all, opponent-bashing is hardly new in American politics.
In 1796, Thomas Jefferson was branded an atheist, and John Adams a monarchist eager to see his son inherit the presidency. In the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln was derided as an ape, and Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child.
More recently, Republican George H.W. Bush effectively used the Willie Horton incident against 1988 Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis, who was then the Massachusetts governor. Horton was a black inmate, furloughed by Dukakis, who terrorized a white couple in Maryland while out of jail. Bush posted an ad warning that a Dukakis victory could turn more Hortons loose.
(Marc Caputo of The Miami Herald contributed to this article.)
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow David Lightman on Twitter: @LightmanDavid