If there's any lesson to be learned from Mitt Romney's big win over Newt Gingrich in Tuesday night's Florida GOP primary, it's that negative campaigning works.
That's the same takeaway that came from their previous battle in South Carolina, though there it was Gingrich, not Romney, who benefited the most from a barrage of advertising whose only goal was to destroy the reputation of an opponent by spreading distortions and outright lies.
As nasty as those contests proved to be, the coming weeks are likely to descend even deeper into the heart of darkness on the road to Super Tuesday on March 6.
By then, Gingrich and Romney may well have covered each other in so much muck that they will obliterate any chance the Republican Party has of denying President Barack Obama a second term in the White House.
Take a look at some statistics compiled by the New York Times to get a sense of the scope of Romney's assault on Gingrich. In Florida, Romney and his nominally independent super PAC spent a combined $15.4 million on TV and radio spots, roughly four times as much as the $3.7 million expended by Gingrich and his allies.
Negative ads accounted for a whopping 92 percent of the total number of ads put up by all the candidates. An amazing 68 percent of the ads were attacks on Gingrich. Of all the ads Romney and his backers put on the air, only 0.1 percent were positive — and that tiny share was accounted for by one Spanish-language spot in which Romney's son raved about his dad's leadership ability.
If ever there were a candidate whose reputation deserved to be dragged through the mud, it's Gingrich, whose self-regard, hypocrisy, ethical callousness and phony intellectualism know absolutely no bounds. The rotund former speaker of the House (think Jabba the Hut in Star Wars) even managed to pander to voters on the hard-pressed Space Coast of Florida by suggesting that the U.S. should beat out the Chinese and build a permanent base on the moon.
But going after even such a fat target as Gingrich as aggressively as Romney did creates blowback. The negative tone of the race turns off voters and makes it more difficult for a candidate to explain why they ought to be for him, not merely reject his opponent.
In Romney's case, that's especially crucial because even after his years on the campaign trail, Republicans don't really like him. Many of them sense that for all his pretense of being a conservative, he's really a "Massachusetts moderate," as Gingrich insists.
So it looks as if throwing all that swill at Gingrich may help Romney win the nomination while it simultaneously sets him up for defeat in the fall. According to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that came out last week, Romney's unfavorability rating among independents has leaped 20 percent in the last two months.
Overall, he is rated very or somewhat negatively by 36 percent, versus only 31 percent who give him a very or somewhat positive rating. A separate Washington Post/ABC poll showed that Romney's negative ratings among independents had jumped to 51 percent.
Meanwhile, Obama's favorability ratings have been creeping up. As recently as November, Romney was trouncing Obama 47 percent to 34 percent among independents in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Now the president is thumping Romney 44 percent to 36 percent. According to exit polls, 38 percent of those who voted in the Florida GOP primary wish some other candidate were running.
What seems to be happening as Romney slogs his way through the mud to the nomination is that voters are starting to focus on the hard choice they will have to make in November, between two actual candidates. And when they compare the reality of Romney — a fat cat who has provided little rationale for his candidacy beyond the fact that he's really, really, really rich and has a great haircut — with Obama, who has in recent months been beating the drums on behalf of the other 99 percent, the president doesn't look so bad.
Jack White keeps an eye on right-wing politics for The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.