ORLANDO, Fla. — The winner of Florida's bruising Republican presidential primary probably will be the candidate who uses traditional mass-marketing tools such as advertising, robo-calls and mailings most effectively.
The intimate town-hall meetings that marked campaigning in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have little impact in a state of 19 million people with 10 media markets and an electorate as diverse as the nation.
Florida is "not a state built for old-fashioned campaigning. It's built for a media campaign," said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.
"What works is an effective message, and there is evidence that an effective negative ad can move people more than a positive ad," said Stephen Craig, a professor and the director of the political campaigning program at the University of Florida.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Negative messages are everywhere.
"People tend to react more to their fear that a bad guy is going to win, rather than their optimism that a good guy will win," Craig said. "That's why it often makes more sense to go negative."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is running TV ads charging that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich "cashed in" on the nation's housing crisis, while his backers run ads saying Gingrich has "more baggage than the airlines." Gingrich supporters are firing back with robo-calls aimed at painting Romney as a moderate who once backed abortion rights.
Romney was the only candidate who was running ads in the state until this week. Since Gingrich won Saturday's South Carolina primary, however, the airwaves are filled with them.
"At this point you can't avoid them," said Susan MacManus, a professor of government at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum is virtually invisible on the airwaves, as is U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
It's a two-candidate ad war. According to NBC/Smart Media Group Delta, which tracks ads, Florida spending so far includes: Romney, $5.7 million; Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney "super" political action committee, $8.7 million; Gingrich, $145,000; Winning Our Future, a pro-Gingrich super PAC, $1.8 million. Candidates and their campaigns aren't permitted to have contact with super PACs, the 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.
Winning Our Future, buoyed by donations from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, is expected to get another $5 million from Miriam Adelson this week. It's run ads linking the 2010 federal health care plan, which Republicans tend to hate, to the 2006 Massachusetts plan that Romney signed into law.
MacManus sees a common denominator in the messages.
"If you're not reaching someone with an economic message in Florida, you're not going to be effective," she said. "The economy is dominant; nothing else comes close, and it hasn't since 2008."
Yet voter anger at Washington is popular, too.
"Gingrich is cleverly positioning himself as the guy who's going to take it to big government, big media," she said. "And Romney plays up the business experience."
Romney's camp promotes his resume as a former corporate executive and governor, and paints Gingrich as an unstable Washington influence peddler.
One hard-hitting Romney ad — tailored for Florida — tries to link Gingrich to the housing crisis that's crippled the state's economy. It cites his consulting work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, and notes that Gingrich once claimed that he was retained as "a historian."
"While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in," it says. The video skeptically quotes Gingrich saying he was a "historian" for Freddie Mac. "A historian?" the narrator asks. "Really?"
It also notes that Gingrich was "sanctioned for ethics," a reference to his 1997 reprimand by the House of Representatives after he was accused of violating tax law and misleading the House Ethics Committee about it. He's the only speaker in history so sanctioned.
Another ad from Romney backers says Gingrich keeps admitting that he made mistakes in the past, and asks, "Haven't we had enough mistakes?"
Gingrich, who lacks Romney's money and organization, is slowly entering the media fray. He's been most fiercely engaged in a battle of Spanish-language ads.
Gingrich is running a TV spot, but he pulled a radio ad that accuses Romney of being "anti-immigrant" and using "Castro phrases" after it drew protests from popular Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who's neutral in the race.
Romney released his own Spanish-language radio attack ad Wednesday, saying "Gingrich profited from Freddie Mac, one of the reasons for the mortgage collapse that has caused so much damage in our community."
Robo-calls also are bombarding voters. Romney's backers have been reminding voters to vote early and telling them how. About 215,000 already have cast ballots.
Gingrich supporters call with the candidate's chief point: "Be on the lookout for moderate Mitt Romney. He's desperate and armed with half-truths. Having lost twice, he'll say anything to cover his trail." It says that as Massachusetts governor, "Mitt was pro-choice, anti-gun and he nominated liberal judges."
It's hard to measure these messages' impact. Voters often are reluctant to admit that such influences matter, but they do say the ads lead them to learn more.
Jane Wall, a Space Coast retiree, said she barely listened to the ads and did her own research. She visited the Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa on Wednesday afternoon to hear from Gingrich.
"I want to hear for myself what they're saying," she said.
In Orlando, when Venita Dimmick, a homemaker, saw Romney's ads about Gingrich and Freddie Mac, she said, "I did look into that. There was definitely a conflict of interest to do what he was doing." She's for Romney.
Bob Knoerzer, a Winter Springs computer consultant, found the messages helped create a positive image of Romney. "I like the family stuff, the American values," he said.
Spencer Meadows, an Orlando physical-therapist recruiter, appreciates knowing more about Gingrich's record. "People may not have known the things he did 20 years ago," he said.
So it appears that the messages are getting through. History shows time and again, said Sarah Rumpf, a conservative blogger and consultant, that "they get inside people's heads."
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY