"The attacks are working on swing voters," expert says.
Updated: August 15, 2012 - 9:46 PM
No one expected Campaign 2012 to be positive or uplifting. The country's problems are too severe and the battle lines between Republicans and Democrats have been hardened by almost four years of conflict between the White House and Congress.
But what is most striking about the campaign is not just the negativity or the sheer volume of attack ads in the swing states. It is the sense that all restraints are gone, the guardrails have disappeared and there is no incentive for anyone to hold back. The other guy does it, so we're going to do it too.
Mitt Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate seemed like an opportunity for the both sides to reset after one of the ugliest weeks of the year. Instead, this week has produced the harshest rhetoric of the campaign.
Vice President Joe Biden triggered the latest round Tuesday with lines, that, had they been uttered by a Republican, likely would have set off an even bigger firestorm. Biden told an audience in Virginia that Romney would "unchain" the big banks if he were elected president and then added, "They're going to put y'all back in chains."
Within hours, Romney said President Obama's "angry and desperate" campaign had brought disrespect to the office of the presidency. "Mr. President," he added, "take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America."
Fear motivates activists
That brought an incendiary response from the Obama campaign. Spokesman Ben LaBolt said Romney's comments "seemed unhinged."
Both Romney and Obama talk about this election being about big choices. That's certainly true, given the opposing worldviews of the candidates. But fear and anger motivate each side's activists. Partisans on both sides imagine the worst will happen if the other side wins. That, in turn, animates the strategies unfolding now.
Mock outrage has long been a part of every campaign's toolkit, but there is a sense now that the outrage is genuine, that the disrespect that the Chicago and Boston teams now feel for one another has escalated and becomes the justification for ever harsher attacks.
'The attacks are working'
Neither side has had to look far to find an excuse to launch an attack or cry foul. Obama's allies took the campaign over the edge last week and the Obama campaign did nothing to stop it. The most egregious example was the ad by Priorities USA, the super PAC supporting Obama, that tied Romney to the cancer death of the wife of Joe Soptic, who lost his health insurance and his job when a steel company that Bain Capital had taken went bankrupt.
The Obama campaign also has refused to denounce Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for making the unsubstantiated accusation that Romney paid no taxes for 10 years.
Mention the Soptic ad to the Obama team and they point to the ad Romney aired that accuses Obama of gutting the work requirement in the welfare reform act that was passed by a GOP Congress and signed into law by then President Bill Clinton in 1996.
The changes were in response to requests from some governors, including Republicans, who wanted more flexibility. Fact-checking outlets have declared the ad erroneous. Romney's campaign has doubled down rather than walk away.
News organizations instituted fact-checking and ad watches in reaction to earlier campaigns, when candidates were getting away with half-truths and worse, with little accountability.
The only check on the campaigns is the marketplace, said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. "If voters move against his attacks, he [Obama] will move away from them," he said. "But right now, the attacks are working on swing voters. The other 90 percent of the public are pretty much fixed in their preferences. They may be unhappy about them [the ads], but they are not driving the marketplace."
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