Base Wars: Antipathy, Fear Motivating Supporters

Base Wars: Antipathy, Fear Motivating Supporters

By Tom Bevan - September 6, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What a difference four years can make. In 2008, Barack Obama took the stage under a summer sky before 80,000 ecstatic supporters at Denver’s Invesco Field and accepted his party's historic nomination for president.

This year the violent remnants of a hurricane have forced a similarly planned event indoors, a fitting omen to an election not being waged with soaring rhetoric, but instead being fought in the trenches with negative ads and slogans wielded like cudgels.

Obama cruised to victory 10 weeks after his Denver convention, promising a weary nation hope and change -- and pledging to help the country rise above its divisive partisan rut. George W. Bush learned during his eight years in Washington that uniting the nation’s polarized political institutions is no easy task, and as President Obama prepares to take the stage here Thursday, he presides over a deeply divided electorate while seeking to claw his way to a second term by portraying his political opponents in harshly negative terms.

Strategists from both campaigns view this as a “base election,” meaning each side’s ability to energize and turn out its die-hard supporters will be critical to the outcome.

One way they do that is to gin up enthusiasm for their own nominee, which Democrats here are gamely trying to do this week by stressing everything from Obama’s support for gay marriage and abortion rights to human interest stories about the positive effects of the Affordable Care Act.

The other way Democrats are trying to sway voters is to repeatedly portray Republicans as extremists so beholden to hidebound conservatism that they want to turn America’s clock back two decades -- or two centuries.

Hence Obama’s recent jab that the GOP convention in Tampa went “so far backwards you might as well have watched it on black-and-white TV.” Or North Carolina Gov. Bev Purdue’s proclamation on MSNBC that if Republicans win the election, poor women will be sent “back to the days of coat hangers in the bathtub, and you’ll see women die.”

The public’s verdict after Tampa appears to have been a big yawn. Mitt Romney received no traditional “bounce” in the polls at all. The days ahead will tell us whether Democrats suffer the same fate, but in the meantime there are signs -- in the nation’s bookstores and movie houses -- that antipathy toward the president among Republicans is stronger than ever.

Take the surprising success of the anti-Obama documentary “2016: Obama’s America.” The movie, which was co-written and co-directed by conservative scholar Dinesh D’Souza, opened at a single theater in Houston on July 13 before expanding to more than 1,700 theaters across the country on Aug. 25.

With virtually no promotional budget, the film has already raked in more than $18 million, making it the sixth highest grossing documentary of all time.

Perhaps even more ominously for the president, recently released tracking data show that the film was especially popular in four crucial battleground states: Florida, Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia.

Not surprisingly, the success of the movie has helped catapult D’Souza’s new book -- a companion piece to the movie -- to No. 2 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. That puts it one spot ahead of Edward Klein’s “The Amateur,” a blistering critique of Obama that has spent 15 weeks on the list, including six weeks at No. 1.

Another new anti-Obama book by Aaron Klein and Brenda J. Elliott, “Fool Me Twice,” debuted this week at No. 8 on the Times list, making three of last week’s top 10 best-selling nonfiction books in America takedowns of the president.

Even though Romney wasn’t the first choice -- or, to be frank, the second or even third choice -- of many Republican primary voters just a few months ago, the base of the party appears lined up en masse to vote for him to achieve their ultimate aim, which is to defeat Barack Obama.

Democrats are aware they face an “enthusiasm gap” this year, which is why the proceedings in Charlotte are so important to the president’s effort to rekindle the fire among his core supporters.

As political analyst Charlie Cook pointed out in a column earlier this week, to win Obama must pile up huge margins and generate high turnout rates, just as he did in 2008, among three key constituencies: young voters, Latinos, and African-Americans. That would be a tall order in ordinary times, let alone in an economic environment with $4-a-gallon gasoline and a record 42 straight months with the unemployment rate at 8 percent or more.

But Obama’s team believes it is not only possible but likely that they can exploit Romney’s weaknesses and re-create enough of a spark among their 2008 base to get their man across the finish line. In 61 days we’ll know whether their confidence is well founded or an act of wishful thinking. 

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email:, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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