Like most on the left, the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court and its potential consequences make me sick to my stomach. Personally, I’ve made every effort as a politically active citizen and commentator to voice my disapproval of the Supreme Court’s ruling and support any effort to change it, be it through constitutional amendment or otherwise.
Yet as a political observer, I find it remarkable how political advertising on the national level hasn’t drastically exceeded that of a typical election year, or at least hasn’t felt like it. Coincidentally, eight years ago this week saw the first televised advertisements by Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth meant to discredit the military service of 2004 Democratic Presidential Candidate, Senator John Kerry. The campaign was given much credit for solidifying Kerry’s slim defeat in that election and eventually would enshrine the pejorative of “swiftboating” into our national politics.
2004 Democratic Presidential Candidate, Senator John Kerry, the first victim of “swiftboating“. Photo courtesy of the US Congress.
What is most concerning in retrospect is that the SBVT’s campaign was so controversial, pervasive, and successful for an organization whose funding does not pale in comparison to that of today’s super PACs who will be doling out millions to sway voters between now and November 6th. Which is why I find it odd that, as of this moment in the 2012 election, we have yet to see such virile and aggressive tactics in a political season that has every reason to be flooded with such advertising. While the suggestion should not discredit those who oppose the Citizens United decision and all of its wide reaching implications, I do wonder whether the projected toxicity of 2012 political ads may not be as bad as many have assumed.
So far, the GOP primaries provide us the only opportunity to see these groups in action but the results appear rather inconclusive. While contests from Iowa through Alabama saw a transcendental and monumental shift in spending from political campaigns to super PACs, spending and fundraising for TV ads through February 2012 was down 20% compared to the average between 2000 and 2008, according to Wells Fargo Securities analyst Marci Rivicker. The reason, Rivicker told Deadline New York, was because there was no need to advertise – the endless GOP debates were enough to give voters a clear idea of each candidate’s positions.
However, one trend that does not bode well for the rest of the election season is the timing of these largely negative advertisements. In many reports, particularly those citing the strategies of super PACs associated with the Romney campaign, most ad spending occurred within the week before the election (in periods often categorized as “air raids”, “ad-bombings”, or “ad-killings”, oddly enough for a nation at war).
Though supremacy in advertising doesn’t automatically mean a victory at the polls (Romney vastly outspent Rick Santorum in Iowa even though Santorum would ultimately walk away as victor by a razor thin margin) it doesn’t change the fact that the rules have changed. The last-minute ad blitz strategy stands in stark contrast to the long term game played by the school of swiftboaters, and it is one that has brought consistent, if not immediate, success to the Romney campaign. To use a football metaphor, it may not score a touchdown on every play but if you can gain four yards every down, you’re technically unstoppable. Such is the best estimable efficacy of super PACs on the game so far.
Unsurprisingly, the Obama campaign has already spent a record and worrisome portion of their cash reserves at this stage of the election – a $400 million effort that may leave them limping through November as fundraising efforts continue to lag behind that of the GOP. Since the President’s re-election bid is overtly built on a focused assault on Governor Romney’s record and character, their game plan appears pulled right out of the swiftboat text book: start early and build doubt among swing voters in the opposing candidate early on, all the while never letting his credibility reach critical mass.
Governor Mitt Romney and the super PACs supporting him are gearing up for his final bout of campaign ads against Obama. Photo courtesy of Flickr.
Whether or not the strategy works or is too old fashioned, it does make sense. After all, this election does feel a lot like that of 2004 and in more ways than one. In both elections, the central conflict of the incumbent’s first term had gone unresolved, leaving their weaknesses blatantly exposed. For President Bush, the elephant in the room (no pun intended) was how the War on Terror had grown into an uncontrollable and mismanaged conundrum in Iraq. Eight years later for President Obama, it’s his inability to get and keep the unemployment percentage under eight percent. Hence, it’s giant douche versus turd sandwich all over again.
In terms of base dynamics, the situation bodes well for Obama. As Democrats were in 2004, the Republican base in 2012 is better motivated by their hatred for the incumbent than the love of their nominee – never a reliable omen for the challenger of any election. Where Obama’s base is clearly disaffected and far less receptive to his attempts to incite favor through charges of flip-floppery at the opposition, his campaign has received only moderate success playing the “Fine if you don’t like me, but do you really want the other guy?” card. These are liberals we’re talking about, after all.
If Barack Obama is successful in November it won’t be pretty, in fact, it will likely be the sort of victory that couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the spirit of his 2008 campaign. If the politics of “Hope and Change” proved anything, it’s that the American people respond better to positivity than negativity. With President Obama making an awkward case at best for a second term and Governor Romney now publicly disavowing every view he’s ever held before a TV camera, there is bound to be nothing but negativity to come from this election – and a bottomless pit of cash to pay for it all.