If the election of 2012 earns one major distinction, it may well be for the volume of negative campaign ads launched by Republican candidates and supportive super PACs against each other. To be fair to Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, we are speaking specifically about negative ads launched by Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney as they battle each other for the right to challenge President Obama.
It is the height of election year comedy that neither Romney nor Gingrich enjoys broad based support among Republicans. Voters don’t believe Romney. Thirty-three percent of the base does not want Romney as president. Gingrich is one of the most intensely disliked politicians in America. If by November 6, the American electorate is not primed to overturn the Supreme Courts infamous 5 to 4 decision in the Citizens United case, it will deserve the future the wealthy have in store for this country. That Supreme Court decision declared corporations to be people and our democracy was up for sale to the highest bidders.
The Romney and Gingrich campaigns spent approximately 16 million dollars in the Florida primary on some 13,000 commercials over a two-week period prior to the election last Tuesday. Ninety-two percent of the ads were negative. In the interest of fairness, the vast majority of these ads were Romney’s or his super PAC’s, because Gingrich didn’t have the fund to compete. If he had, the 13,000 could have been far higher. This was a record thus far in this campaign season.
More ominously, the Florida primary may be a harbinger of the dread to be visited upon millions of voters between now and “Super Tuesday” on March 6. Should Newt Gingrich make good on his promise to remain in contention for the nomination until the Republican convention, the negative barrage will continue well into the summer.
The American electorate understands that negative ads are a staple in political campaigns at all levels. Numerous studies show campaign commercials do influence voter perceptions of candidates and the positions candidates take on issues. One CBS exit poll revealed that 39 percent of Florida voters admitted that advertising affected their decision. Studies also reflect increasing voter disdain for negative ads. We may never know whether the volume of negative ads in Florida established a precedent for a single primary.
President Obama’s team has yet to enter the fray in a large way. Media reports suggest they plan to attack Romney’s character, a tactic that Romney used against Gingrich in Florida. It is to be expected this will precipitate a major response from the Romney team, assisted by Karl Rove and the Koch brothers’ billions. And that would be just the opening salvo. We can only hang onto our hats.
Romney bloodied Newt Gingrich in Florida, but Newt vows to soldier on. So why does he stay the course? “Gingrich is leading in the national polls, and only 5 percent of the total delegates have been selected thus far, so there’s still a lot in play,” notes Oxford University historian Tim Stanley. What we can expect is a fusillade of vitriol from the Gingrich camp and from other conservatives and financial backers dismayed by Romney’s ascent. Their hope was that Newt would repeat his South Carolina success and vanquish Romney in Florida. What this means is the road to “Super Tuesday” is about to be lowered beneath bedrock to slime not seen recently.
Newt’s “race-hating” performance in South Carolina reaped dividends. Therefore, we can expect repeat performances as he looks ahead to primaries in Southern states in March and beyond. Many of his Republican supporters in the conservative south digest well the steady diet of red meat Gingrich offers. There is, however, a larger segment of the electorate less interested in a replay of Florida: independents.
A number of independent voters are looking for ideas, solutions, and a serious discussion regarding our national priorities. Moreover, they want to know whether either of the Republican frontrunners offers an alternative to President Obama. The politics of personal destruction as campaign strategy — if media reporting is to be believed — does not resonate with many of them. Romney and Gingrich are focused on their short game — a strategy that will haunt one of them during the general campaign.
During the months prior to the Republicans’ August convention, the rest of us are relegated to the status of spectators to an ongoing campaign of Republican self-immolation. Meanwhile, millions of dollars will be raised and spent on negative commercials between now and Super Tuesday. On that day, 437 delegates from 10 contests are at stake. There are eight caucuses, or primaries between Florida’s vote and “Super Tuesday.” About 250 delegates are in play from these eight contests. Here is the lineup: Nevada, Saturday, February 4; Missouri (caucus), February 7, Colorado and Minnesota also on February 7; Maine, February 11; and, Michigan and Arizona on February 28.
There is no escape! We can turn off the TV and radio; that’s easy. Given our growing addiction to social media, they, too, offer equally unlimited opportunities to dull our senses with more negative messages, clichés, lies, and inane assertions regarding the executive decisions they will make before attending their first inaugural ball. (Congress, including some Republicans, may want to weigh in on some of the decisions.)
Should the Democrats launch a massive assault on Romney’s character financed by hundreds of millions in campaign funds, it may hasten a national consensus to overturn Citizens United. Constitutional amendments are difficult under the best of circumstances. An amendment to overturn Citizens United may well be the most significant ancillary benefit of this campaign season.
If unlimited and unidentified campaign cash purchases the next president — as it appears it could, elections at all levels in this country will become just another commodity to purchase on the open market. Retail politics will give way to wholesale purchases of government.
Without a constitutional amendment, there will be no obstacle to prevent foreign governments, corporations, and super wealthy individuals from purchasing Executive and Legislative Branch officials whose positions on issues are more favorable to their interests. The prospects are frightening, but all too real.
We can expect no rude awakening to this threat to our Democracy from Republicans. They are invested in it.
The 2012 election offers a timely opportunity to begin the process of correcting the most perfidious Supreme Court decision ever — and we should do it soon. There are powerful concentrations of power and wealth invested in tightening their grip on this country. Should we delay, we will have surrendered rights for which many Americans willingly forfeited their lives in countless struggles here at home and in conflicts around the world.