No End in Sight for Campaigns' Negative Focus

No End in Sight for Campaigns' Negative Focus

By Scott Conroy - August 8, 2012

It's going to get worse before it gets better -- if it gets better.

Both presidential candidates and their allies have for months bombarded the airwaves with an escalating series of charges and countercharges, and as any swing state voter with a television set can attest, the onslaught has only picked up during the so-called summer doldrums.

On Tuesday, the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA upped the ante. It unveiled a 60-second TV spot featuring a former steelworker who lost his job -- and the health insurance that came with it -- after Bain Capital purchased and then shut down the Kansas City plant where he worked.

Joe Soptic, who had appeared in a previous Obama ad, adds that his wife later became ill. Though he does not know when she first felt sick, Soptic speculates that she did not speak up about it because she knew that they could not afford to pay for treatment. She later died of cancer.

“I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he’s done to anyone,” Soptic says at the ad’s conclusion. “And furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.”

With the Democratic and Republican conventions less than a month away, some observers had hoped the two campaigns might take a more positive approach before the final two-month slog to Election Day.

But by and large there has been little indication that either side is willing to take a break from the mudslinging that has dominated the 2012 presidential race.

The new Priorities USA ad marked a deadly serious turn in the unrelentingly negative style of campaigning seen so far, but the two candidates demonstrated within hours of each other that neither one is above the kind of name calling that’s more befitting a schoolyard than an election to decide who the next president will be.

Obama threw the first stone on Monday, telling the crowd at a Connecticut fundraiser that Romney’s tax plan would reward the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.

“That’s Robin Hood in reverse,” Obama said. “That’s Romney Hood.”

Not to be outdone, Romney let fly with his own zinger during an interview with Fox News on Tuesday.

"We've been watching the president say a lot of things about me and about my policies, and they're just not right," Romney said. "And if I were to coin a term, it would be 'Obamaloney.' ”

Handwringing over such negativity is a quadrennial exercise, but the contrast between the 2008 and 2012 editions of Obama is getting difficult for even his admirers to ignore.

He rose to national prominence on a platform of ending “the smallness of our politics,” and his message of “hope and change” has been replaced by an all-out effort to tear down his opponent.

On the other side of the coin, prominent Romney allies have wondered aloud about whether the presumptive GOP nominee has missed an opportunity to provide a more positive message and delve more deeply into the policy prescriptions he would offer as president, rather than focusing almost entirely on depicting Obama’s presidency as an across-the-board failure.

“I don’t think you can beat an incumbent president, even if the economy is slow, if 27 percent of the voters think you as the challenger don’t have a clear plan about improving the economy,” said the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, citing a poll released last month. “A lot of people who hope Mitt Romney wins the presidency in November, which I certainly do, would like to see him stand up and say, ‘I have a plan,’ and I am going to aggressively address these problems and fix the economy.’ They seem to be playing prevent defense.”

But Kristol and other likeminded conservatives are likely to be disappointed.

Though a senior Romney adviser told RCP that the campaign intended to use the convention in Tampa as a “methodical introduction of Mitt Romney to the nation,” the candidate’s strategists intend to stick to the script that has guided the former Massachusetts governor from Day One: making the election a referendum on President Obama.

With no sign of a change in Obama’s strategy either, and with outside spending groups on both sides almost certain to press the boundaries even further, the 2012 presidential campaign is poised to take an even uglier turn in its last three months. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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