So what does this mean? It's time for the negative ads to hit the air. Like it or not, negative advertising is the best remaining avenue to cut through the message clutter being created daily.
During the CNN YouTube debate we witnessed the first candidate-on-candidate high-profile violence via a "TV ad." Granted, it was a YouTube hit job from the Fred Thompson campaign that aired as part of the infomercial portion of the programming and not and actual "I approved this message" broadcast or cable TV ad. But it still counts. Question: Will this unleash the hounds of candidate-approved negative ads? Or will the other campaigns stick to the safer method of having issue groups return fire?
I know the Log Cabin Republicans have already sent negative ads Mitt Romney's way. And the Club for Growth has nipped at Mike Huckabee over his tax record during his days as Governor in Arkansas. But those don't count as real game changers. The ads that the political press, bloggers and every other semi-interested party are waiting for are the ads we've seen in both the 2000 and 2004 elections that changed the pace and the tone of the elections.
In 2000 it was the Republicans for Clean Air who attacked John McCain. In 2004 it was Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values that attacked Howard Dean (you've got to love the names of these groups). At the time, what made these ad campaigns significant was that when the McCain and Dean campaigns returned fire, they did so not at the groups running the ads, but at the candidates that they felt were pulling the strings. In others words, what made these negative ads count is that the target campaign responds in-kind.
So what we should be watching out for is which negative ads run, who runs them and who responds to them with their own counter-attack ad. Buckle-up its going to be a wild ride.
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Evan Tracey is the founder and chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a TNS Media Intelligence company. See his complete bio.