Double Negative

“Meet Bob Casey's campaign team,” begins Senator Rick Santorum's most recent attack ad. Released statewide in Pennsylvania on September 22, the ad depicts Casey's closest contributors smoking cigars in an ersatz campaign headquarters that is revealed at the end to be a jail cell. The ad suggests that Casey has surrounded himself with criminal fund-raisers, and alludes to allegations that Casey awarded favorable contracts to Commerce Bank while he was auditor general. It's typical of the commercials that Santorum and his allies have been running for the past several months, at the cost of $10 million. Those attack ads enabled the two-term senator to gain ground in the polls all summer long. But it now looks like Santorum may have taken his ad war too far.

The bright news had slowly dimmed for Casey over the last half year, with polls documenting his once double-digit lead steadily vanishing over the past seven months. Keystone and Zogby, which gave Casey an 11-point advantage back in February, have shown that lead decrease to 7 and 4 percent by early September, respectively. A Quinnipiac University Poll from June 21 showed Casey with an 8 percent lead, which dropped to 6 percent by August 15. According to Larry Smar, a spokesperson for the Casey campaign, “Santorum came back in the polls because he was the only person on TV for two months.”

As of June 30, Santorum had a $4 million cash-on-hand advantage over Casey. (He has raised nearly twice as much money as Casey overall.) By contrast, Casey has only just begun running TV ads statewide. In response to Santorum's “criminal fund-raiser” ad, for instance, Casey countered with a commercial airing in Democratically-dominated Philadelphia, in which Governor Ed Rendell calls the allegations “trash.” Casey's ad goes on to charge that Santorum's involvement in the K Street Project brought him into the orbit of Jack Abramoff. But only a minority of voters viewed Casey's rebuttal -- and those voters were likely to be Casey supporters anyway.

Thus there remains a question as to what accounts for a pretty dramatic development last week: Casey has suddenly jumped back up in four consecutive polls.

“I think Santorum's ad backfired,” said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “It's clear now that Santorum's losing momentum, and it's largely due to that ad.” A Quinnipiac poll, along with polls from Rasmussen, Issues PA/Pew, and Inquirer/Temple University, all put Casey's lead back in double digits. According to Richards, the most important finding in the Quinnipiac poll was that only 31 percent of participants reported still not knowing enough about Casey. That number is down eight points from a similar poll conducted in August. “The ad boosted Casey's capability in a way,” Richards asserted. “People suddenly remember that he was auditor general and is state treasurer.” In other words, Santorum's attack ad indirectly raised awareness of Casey.

Indeed, Santorum's ad had sparked a firestorm from the media and ad-watch groups alike. The Philadelphia Inquirer disputed Santorum's charges, contending that none of the fund-raisers seen in the ad are working on the Casey campaign. Scranton's Times Tribune took it a step further by claiming that the fund-raisers in question had in fact contributed to Santorum's campaign, not Casey's. Eventually, Santorum's campaign conceded the ad's blatant inaccuracies. The entire controversy has only managed to boost Casey's favorability ratings, without Casey ever having to match Santorum in ad spending.

In May, Rasmussen Reports labeled Santorum “the most vulnerable incumbent” going into the upcoming elections. Democrats need to capture six Senate seats this fall in order to take control, and many view the race in Pennsylvania as the party's best opportunity to pick up a seat in a swing state. Polls also show that Santorum, the third highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, has lost popularity among voters due to the “Bush effect” -- Santorum's solid allegiance to a deeply unpopular president. It's all enough to raise a question: If millions of dollars in negative attack ads and an undying allegiance to the president haven't helped Santorum's campaign, what will?

Zack Pelta-Heller is a graduate student at The New School and a regular contributor to AlterNet.

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