Ron Paul has just released a tough new campaign ad aimed at Rick Santorum. It attacks him from the right, labeling him a fake fiscal conservative. Will that sort of flanking move work, particularly in the key upcoming Michigan primary?
Well, maybe. We’ll discuss that in a moment. But first, let’s talk about the ad itself, because it’s just brutal about the former Pennsylvania senator. It’s got that quick-cut, cartoon fun-house style that’s distinguished Representative Paul’s best ads in this election cycle. Think Monty Python animation mashed up with "Meet the Press," and you’ll have an approximation of what it’s about.
It opens with a Santorum cutout popping up, followed by a multi-font graphic that says, “Is this dude serious?” It then goes on to question his fiscal conservative credentials, saying he voted to raise the debt ceiling five times and doubled the size of the Department of Education (this is shown by an expanding potbelly – maybe that’s a bit much). It accuses him of voting for the biggest expansion of US social policy since the 1960s – we presume this refers to the Medicare drug benefit established under President George W. Bush.
“Not groovy,” says the ad, against a tie-dye background. Like, wow.
So you get the theme. It ends with the question, “Is Rick Santorum a fiscal conservative?” Then the narrator says “fake,” and a picture of Bigfoot appears.
Cheerful, colorful negative advertising: Is it the wave of the future? It is if this 35-second scalpel of a spot is any sign.
However – and this is the “but” – the point of this ad shows the difficulties that Paul and Mitt Romney will have in driving up Mr. Santorum’s negatives. Yes, we’ve lumped Paul and Mr. Romney together here on purpose, since they have pretty good relations and Romney is also trying to outmaneuver Santorum to his right.
Santorum is pretty clearly conservative, in the traditional, social sense, due to his positions on abortion and other hot-button issues. To try to separate out the fiscal part of conservatism and brand Santorum unstable on that is a difficult political task, since voters will be predisposed to equate his social conservatism with overall conservatism.
Whew. Got it?
You can see this reflected in the latest numbers out of Michigan. Take the Public Policy Polling survey released Sunday, in which Santorum leads Romney overall, 37 to 33 percent. Break down the demographics, and you’ll see that Santorum has a double-digit lead among voters who describe themselves as “very conservative” – 54 to 23 percent. He leads among tea party adherents by 55 to 20 percent.
“Santorum’s advantage over Romney seems to be a reflection of voters being more comfortable with where he is ideologically,” concludes a PPP data analysis.
Romney has been gaining ground in Michigan, but it’s more a function of him increasing his own favorability ratings than driving down Santorum’s, according to PPP. That summarizes Romney’s (and Paul’s) problem in the Mitten State: Santorum is a harder target than was Newt Gingrich in Florida. There, all Romney and his surrogates had to do was portray Mr. Gingrich as unstable. And Gingrich gave them a lot of rope to paint him with that broad brush, if you know what we mean. Moon colonies, and all that.
By the way, we’re not implying that Romney and Paul are direct allies here. We’re just saying that they face the same electoral puzzle and are attacking it the same way. It will be interesting to see how or if the polls move prior to Michigan’s primary next week.