If you thought the 2008 election cycle was full of negative ads, just wait until 2012's campaign gets fully underway.
The upcoming presidential campaign, says journalist Joe Hagan, is expected to "be the most negative in the history of American politics."
Hagan says a big factor in what he calls the "tsunami of slime" is the emergence of superPACs. They're political action committees closely associated with particular candidates, and often run by friends and former staffers of the candidates they support. But unlike candidates' committees, whose contributions are limited by federal law, superPACs can take donations of any size. Hagan says the unprecedented flood of cash is allowing superPACs to hire armies of opposition researchers and ad-makers who will be busy planning attack ads from now until November.
"You've got so much new outside money coming in as a result of the creation of the superPACs," he says. "More money means more advertising and that is how a lot of this money gets spent."
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, $215 million was spent by outside groups in the 2008 election. That number is expected to more than triple in the 2012 election cycle.
"The amounts of money that are just in the two superPACs representing conservative issues — Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers' superPAC, and American Crossroads, the one that was co-founded by Karl Rove, have both promised to raise upwards of $400 million. Just those guys," he says. "So it's going to be much, much bigger than [2008.]"
In January 2010, the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling lifted restrictions on how much money corporations, unions and individuals could spend on political ads. But corporations and unions cannot give money directly to a presidential committee. Instead, they give money to a superPAC.
Hagan writes that the superPACs are "effectively mini-campaigns, employing more pollsters, more researchers, and more ad-makers for the purpose of going negative against the opposition ... The rise of the superPACs has completely reinvented the dynamics of negative campaigning, removing the consequences of factual inaccuracy by allowing the candidate a veneer of deniability, while multiplying a campaign's effective manpower."
SuperPACs are not legally connected to a candidate, but Hagan says there's a lot of what he calls 'gaming' taking place behind the scenes.
"The superPACs are being headed up by former staffers of those candidates – very recently former — so they're just basically walking away from Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney's groups and going over to head these other groups," he says. "Now they're not legally supposed to have any communications with each other whatsoever. They're all very paranoid about this because it can lead to jail time. However, as former staffers, obviously they know the candidate and the candidate's strategy and it's only a very tissue-thin distinction between them being separate from the campaign and a part of it."
Last July, Mitt Romney spoke at a fundraiser for the biggest superPAC supporting him, Restore Our Future. Romney did not directly ask for contributions for the superPAC, but checks were collected shortly after he left.
"It's a joke," says Hagan. "Lawyers have been involved in deeply vetting all of this stuff and they know exactly what they can do and exactly what they can't do. We're in uncharted territory here. And all of the consultants I talked to are a part of either a superPAC or a part of the campaign proper. They all talk about this. But they've all sat down with lawyers and know what they can and can't do — so they've figured out how they can basically coordinate without coordinating."
Hagan says the media has become a vehicle for superPACs to communicate with candidates.
"You'll read three stories a day with the consultants from the campaigns being quoted over and over and over either as blind quotes or on the record, and all that the PAC has to do is read these stories and see exactly [what the campaign] is intending to do and exactly what the message is that they're trying to get across," he says. "These backstage stories have become interlocutors to communicate between the campaigns and the superPACs ... These stories aren't read by anybody but Beltway junkies, so it's a perfect, easy way to do it."
On opposition researchers at superPACs
"The superPACs, in many ways, have displaced a lot of work that the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee used to be doing. Those people are doing it also, but these people are doing it with much more money. So they can afford to hire more people, do more digging, get more advertising, [buy more] air time. And if Mitt Romney wants to do a certain attack on Newt Gingrich and say that he is grandiose, the superPAC supporting Mitt Romney — Restore Our Future — can begin to go through its opposition research archives, slap together a bunch of ads and air them in Florida."
On how the media influences negative ads
"What these guys realize is that you can dig up all of this negative information, but if it's coming from a Romney press release about Gingrich, let's say, it's going to have a lot less gravity with people than if it comes out in a newspaper like The New York Times or it comes out on MSNBC or CNN. So a lot of what the opposition research is about is getting the information to reporters, getting them to report it, and putting the imprimatur of an objective outlet around it. So this is the warfare that's going on between these campaigns."
On relationships between the press and campaign strategists
"There's such a tight relationship between the political reporters and these consultants who are giving them all of this information. I think this is part of a larger trend, over the last 10 years, kind of a merging of politics and media. You have Fox News and now MSNBC, which kind of represents the left. The distinction between the messaging that is coming out of political campaigns and their superPACs and what's going on in the press is getting more and more blurred."
On tips given to the media
"They're providing them not just tips about radioactive, bad stories that could lead to the opposition being kneecapped for goods, but video content and archival information that [reporters] can use in their pieces: quotes and videos and things that [the researchers] dug up. ... It's not just Deep Throat kind of information, it's a daily barrage of well-researched information."
On how social media has made this process more open
"This has always happened throughout the ages, but in the past this was much more secretive. ... All day long there's this churn going on and the reporters have these relationships with opposition researchers, they go out for drinks with them, they learn things. This has been going on in the past, but now it's much more out in the open. There are more of those opposition researchers and maybe less of the reporters. The power, in many cases, is with these opposition researchers."