Iowa and South Carolina were microcosms. The pro-Romney super-PAC, Restoring Our Future, operated by former staffers of the Massachusetts governor, eviscerated Newt Gingrich in December by buying roughly $3 million in TV and radio ads, prompting Gingrich to cry foul—and then launch a major counteroffensive against Romney in South Carolina, where his super-PAC, Winning Our Future, teed up $3.4 million for TV and radio ads. Romney then launched a counter-counteroffensive, to which Gingrich responded in kind, handing him a bloody victory and creating what may have been one of the most toxic, entertaining political primaries in memory.
And that was just last week. The Romney campaign, with millions more in its coffers, can afford an expensive and brutal evisceration of Gingrich’s character, which means that the road to the Republican nomination is liable to get much, much bloodier. And the Republican contest is only the undercard. The Obama team will be waiting for the victor with even more punishing waves of negative campaigning.
In the busy beehive of Mitt Romney’s headquarters in Boston, a group of consultants has spent the last year creating a formula for crushing Barack Obama—and it’s not rocket science. “You have a president who has promised that if we spent close to a trillion dollars that unemployment would never reach 8 percent,” says Russ Schriefer of the Stevens & Schriefer Group, who is directing Romney’s message strategy along with his partner, Stuart Stevens. “So whether unemployment is 9.1 or 8.6, the bottom line is there’s 25 million Americans unemployed or looking for work or left the job market. That will become the driving message of this campaign.”
When I visited Romney headquarters last fall, Stevens, pointing to an image of an unemployment line in a campaign poster he created entitled “Obama Isn’t Working,” said to me: “This election isn’t about Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. It’s about these people.”
Negative campaigning, like any art, draws on lessons of the past—the poster’s message was appropriated from Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party’s 1979 campaign, when the Labour Party was in power and Britain’s economy was spiraling down.
Stevens, who has written and produced several TV shows, including episodes of Northern Exposure, started with the premise that we are, in fact, in the Great Depression, imagining the Romney campaign as the political counterpart to John Steinbeck—a populist narrative lionizing the jobless, with Obama as the failed Herbert Hoover. They used the concept to make their first significant piece of propaganda, an Internet video titled “Bump in the Road,” in which beleaguered Americans are using Obama’s own phrase that “there are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery” to declare, “I’m an American, not a bump in the road.”
Stevens, an extreme-sports enthusiast and man of gnomic political wisdom, considers himself a kind of artiste, a screenwriter and book author, filmmaker and political adman, all rolled in one. In our conversations, he tried out different historical lenses, sports metaphors, and cinematic analogs that would best frame the unemployment numbers as emotional pain and Obama as out to lunch. “It’s very much just like I was reading in books like A Bright Shining Lie and The Best and the Brightest,” he said. “You could take sentences out of this and take Vietnam and replace it with economy.”
But it was the Obama campaign of 2008 that offered the best example of what was possible. Stevens recalls the 30-minute infomercial Obama broadcast in the campaign’s closing weeks, featuring heart-wrenching interviews with average Americans telling stories of their financial and health-care woes. “How difficult is it going to be to make that half-hour over and over and over again about what’s happened in Barack Obama’s America?” he said. “Over and over and over.”
“Romney will defeat Obama easily,” he added with typical hubris and before his best-laid plans were torched by Gingrich. “It won’t seem easy until the last 72 hours or so, but the final numbers won’t be particularly close.”
Mitt Romney may be a man with glaring political weaknesses. But his forces have demonstrated a serious gift for negative campaigning. In early December, 35 percent of likely Republican primary and caucus voters favored Newt Gingrich, posing an existential threat to Romney’s campaign of inevitability. Alarmed, the Romney team quickly pivoted from doing virtually no media, a kind of exposure austerity plan meant to avoid controversy, to conducting a direct and open assault on Gingrich—with stunning success. In the face of Romney’s attacks, Gingrich first tried to stay above the fray, attempting to make negative campaigning itself the issue. But after his devastating loss, he, too, decided to take the gloves off, leading to the free-for-all attack on Romney’s career as a “corporate raider” at private-equity firm Bain Capital that we saw in South Carolina. “If the truth seems negative,” said Gingrich, “that may be more of a comment on his record than it is on politics.”