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Deep-pocketed GOP attack machine fuels negative campaign tactics

A parade of Republicans are attacking President Obama for opening the door to a Democratic-leaning Super PAC to support him. They’re criticizing the President for refusing to concede defeat in November. Campaign Manager Jim Messina explained the necessity of the President’s decision in a blog post last week:

“With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm.”

A spokesman for Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC called it a “brazenly cynical move,” and Joe Pounder of the Republican National Committee said:

“Yet again, Barack Obama has proven he will literally do anything to win an election, including changing positions on the type of campaign spending he called nothing short of a ‘threat to our democracy.’”

But before the GOP attacks the President’s campaign decisions, they should be reminded of a few things about the early state of this campaign.

Conservative Super PACs and outside interest groups are throwing unprecedented sums of money into the ring already—and the Republicans don’t even have a nominee yet. According to published reports, these conservative advocacy groups are planning to spend more than $500 million this election cycle, all with one goal: to defeat President Obama.

Here’s just a hint of what’s been going on in the GOP’s giant web of money:

  • The Karl Rove-affiliated American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS groups raised a combined $51 million in 2011 and have said they hope to raise and spend $300 million in all.

  • Crossroads GPS, which is not required to disclose its donors, has quickly spent more than $10 million on ads targeting President Obama.

  • Americans for Prosperity, funded by the oil billionaire Koch brothers and other conservative donors, will reportedly spend as much as $200 million to attack the President.

  • According to the Washington Post, “Nonprofit ‘social welfare’ organizations and other tax-exempt groups with confidential donors have spent more than $24 million in the 2012 cycle on political ads naming President Obama or, less frequently, his Republican rivals.”

Since 2008, the number of ads sponsored by outside interest groups has increased by 1,600 percent—a fact the Wesleyan Media Project attributes directly to the rise of the overly influential Super PACs.

The result of this influx of cash has been devastating for civility in our political discourse. The Republican primary race has been marked by brutal negativity as “independent” groups align themselves with a candidate and pour their resources into relentlessly tearing down their opponent. This is happening within the GOP, as intra-party warfare—one can only imagine how low the Super PACs will be willing to stoop once the general election gets into full gear.

Groups supporting Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have been busy this winter, unleashing an unprecedented barrage of negative attack ads:

  • Kenneth Goldstein, president of a firm that tracks content and targeting of political advertising, told the Daily Beast: “For as long as I’ve been in politics, 14 years, journalists call me and ask if this is the most negative election ad atmosphere I’ve ever seen. And every year I say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ But this year it’s true. This primary season is the most negative it’s ever been. I have absolutely never seen television advertising so negative in a Republican presidential primary.”

  • The Associated Press reported on Romney’s Super PAC, getting to the heart of the matter: “Restore Our Future has been a bulwark of Romney’s campaign, taking on the task of doing all the negative advertising on his behalf. That saves his campaign millions in television costs while allowing the candidate himself to keep his distance from unsavory attacks on his rivals.”

  • Restore our future has spent more than $18 million, of which 96 percent was poured into attack ads. The week before the GOP Florida primary was even worse: the pro-Romney Super PAC ran 4,969 ads—every single one of them a negative attack.

  • The pro-Newt Gingrich Super PAC Winning Our Future has raised $12 million in less than two months, thanks in large part to one billionaire couple. This group was only slightly more civil in the week before the Florida primary—more than half of its TV ads contained negative messages.

The numbers don’t lie. Republicans and their deep-pocketed friends in the conservative election machinery are willing to spend unheard-of amounts of money on an overwhelmingly negative campaign this year. The leading GOP candidates are willing to accept a ruthless political atmosphere where loopholes abound and outside groups play by their own set of rules.

And one thing is certain—their influence will only increase when they’ve chosen a nominee.