The man who is schooled in the art of political destruction sits in a mahogany bar called Morton’s in Washington, D.C., a hangout for Republican consultants and lobbyists, and occasionally Congressman John Boehner, who meet to drink cocktails and talk shop under pale lights. A veteran of past presidential campaigns, and an associate of Mitt Romney’s team, he sips a stiff drink and talks about the imperatives of the 2012 presidential election.
“How are we going to punch him every fucking day in the face with the best fucking message that is going to drive voters in our favor?” he asks. The face in question is that of President Barack Obama. “How do we do it nationally? How do we do it in the states? How do we do it over and over and over? We’re not going to win the fight with a knockout punch; we’re going to win it with kidney blows that make your opponent so feeble that he can no longer raise his hands to cover his face.”
It’s going to get ugly—it always does, and this year, it already has. But by almost every measure, the 2012 election is going to be the most negative in the history of American politics. In this, the post-hope election, the promise of Obama’s last campaign has been turned inside out. For all the Republicans’ attempts to emphasize the virtues of austerity, the animating force of their party is hatred of Obama, his “Kenyan” ancestry, his “socialism” and Chicago associates, and the charge that he took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and landed us in an anxious, alien landscape that doesn’t feel anything like what people used to call “America.”
Obama, of course, has a record he can point to, having saved the economy from collapse and salvaged the American car industry, not to mention acing Osama bin Laden, but the banner headline “We’re Not in the Great Depression!” isn’t a platform he can run on. The classic political question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is liable to be answered with an emphatic “No.” Over $15 trillion in debt, 8.5 percent unemployment, yawning structural problems, a severely gridlocked government—Obama is in a box, and there is only one way out of this box: the low road. In 2008, Obama won by pivoting off an unpopular incumbent with a hope-and-change message; now he’s the unpopular incumbent who must pivot off an even worse alternative—by the Obamans’ early calculations, Mitt Romney, a man he will paint as the coreless flip-flopper and rich plutocrat who made millions laying off American workers and who, in the Grand Guignol of the Republican-nomination process, was forced to take positions to the right of most Americans’. But after Romney’s tarring in South Carolina, they can now consider an even riper target: Newt Gingrich, whose personal “baggage” of ex-wives has sent pundits scrambling for novel new metaphors (more baggage than “a Rolling Stones tour,” “American Airlines,” “Prince Akeem in Coming to America’”) both candidates are what Democratic operatives call a “target-rich environment.”
There’s plenty of ammo on both sides, but the biggest driver of this race is money. There is more money pouring into this election than ever, and it will necessarily mean more negative advertising by volume. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court decision that opened the door to corporate and union money, and eventually unlimited donations, has fathered the new breed of superpowered political-action committees, super-PACs, on both the left and the right. (Though the Republicans have been more successful at fund-raising thus far than Democrats, partially because Obama so vehemently opposed the Citizens United decision and his strategists are afraid the appearance of cronyism will damage the Obama brand.) Operated by veteran party apparatchiks, super-PACs are effectively mini-campaigns, employing more pollsters, more researchers, and more ad-makers for the purpose of going negative against the opposition—every fucking day. The rise of the super-PACs has completely reinvented the dynamics of negative campaigning, removing the consequences of factual inaccuracy by allowing the candidate a veneer of deniability, while multiplying a campaign’s effective manpower.
Whereas in 2008 there were about 25 opposition researchers, the engine of any negative campaign, working for Obama’s campaign, the pro-Obama super-PACs, Priorities USA Action and American Bridge 21st Century, together add another 50. Even more will be added on the right, with American Crossroads, the super-PAC co-founded by the negative-campaigning guru Karl Rove, and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity all staffed up and sharpening their arrows, ready to ally with whomever the nominee is and his respective super-PAC. That means that instead of two campaigns running against each other, there will be six or more, a virtual arms race of donor money, most of it anonymous, with overall television advertising spending expected to reach $3 billion in 2012. The tsunami of slime will overtake the public sphere for months.
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.”
Starting in the spring of 2011, another group of consultants, working for Barack Obama, began gathering voters in conference rooms, paid them the usual fee, between $75 and $100, and asked them questions about the president and the economy. They tested their knowledge. They explored their fears. They took notes.
The Obama camp won’t officially talk about that work, but a person familiar with the findings says there was a tension between voters’ emotional response to the economy—which was brutal—and an intellectual understanding that Obama wasn’t fully to blame for it. What that meant was they had to separate the emotional response from how people thought of Obama—to frame the election as a choice between the likable and the unlikable, with personal trust as the fulcrum on which the argument hinged.
“I believe where authenticity and character count, we score pretty high on that, and people trust him,” says Jim Margolis, a veteran Democratic adman who’s a senior strategist on Obama’s campaign (and who helped make the half-hour film Stevens cited as inspiration). “Governor Romney has a record that repeatedly points to a finger in the wind and a willingness to take any position that he believes will further his own political goals, do whatever it takes to get elected.”
In storytelling terms, that meant Obama needed to paint Mitt Romney as very unlikable, even repellent. Enter his storytellers, David Plouffe and David Axelrod, Obama’s White House chief political aide and chief strategist. Plouffe and Axelrod, who had been partners in Chicago firm AKPD Message and Media, have their own impressive negative gifts. In 2008, while Obama ran on the “hope” brand, the Obama campaign spent more money on negative ads than any other campaign in history, much of it under the radar—for instance, a radio ad that micro-targeted independent women and claimed McCain was against stem cells for medical research, even though he supported it.
Without the “hope” message, “this one is going to be harder,” says a Democratic strategist who is friends with Plouffe. “They’re going to be more negative; they just have to be. It has to be more about Mitt Romney.”
Making the early calculation that Romney would be the likely nominee for Republicans, senior Obama officials started testing attack lines this past August by telegraphing to Beltway website Politico that they intended to “kill” Romney with a narrative that painted him as “weird,” an awkward, unlikable stiff.
The story backfired, with critics questioning whether “weird” was code for Romney’s Mormonism and therefore a subtle smear. Axelrod leapt to put out the fire, insisting the campaign wouldn’t focus on “gratuitous personal attacks”—even though he underlined the attack by putting a finer point on it. “Presidential campaigns are like MRIs of the soul,” Axelrod said. “When he makes jokes about being unemployed or a waitress pinching him on the butt, it does snap your head back, and you say, ‘What’s he talking about?’ ”
A more promising line of attack may be on Romney the plutocrat. The Obama campaign was looking for ways to exploit Romney’s hypercapitalist background long before Bain Capital was a gleam in Newt Gingrich’s eye. Again, it looked to the past, exploring ways in which other campaigns had turned facts and policies into stories with the power to turn an election. One model was the 1936 presidential race between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Republican Alf Landon, when Landon campaigned on austerity and the promise to repeal Social Security—and lost in a landslide. More recently, Chris Lehane, a former operative for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, has told the Obama people to study the California gubernatorial race of 2010, which pitted former eBay CEO Meg Whitman against veteran Democrat Jerry Brown.
“We did a series of polls or focus groups, and the fact that she has been associated with Wall Street, she cut jobs and gave herself a big bonus, was a disqualifier for being governor,” Lehane says. “The second you entered that into the discussion, the discussion ended. Ultimately the story line [Brown] developed on her was she was willing to put her own interests ahead of the public interests.”
Margolis made ads in California senator Barbara Boxer’s 2010 campaign against Carly Fiorina, another CEO candidate, formerly of Hewlett-Packard. “For a lot of people,” says Margolis, “they’re looking at this and saying, ‘Gee, she is someone who took care of herself, closed down our factories, moved jobs overseas, bought new yachts. Is that really someone who is going to fix this economy?’ ”
It was Newt Gingrich, of course, who began the work of linking Romney and his role in high finance to the terrible economy. “This offers the potential to level the emotional playing field for the president,” says Priorities USA Action pollster Geoff Garin.
What these negative tacticians are attempting to do is to simplify. Psychologists talk about the “availability heuristic,” the tendency of a person to judge something, or someone, by the most readily available information. If viewers are told in a well-produced movie, for instance, that Romney laid off workers at a factory to enrich himself while running private-equity firm Bain Capital—regardless of whether it was three or four instances out of 100, or whether he ultimately created more jobs than he destroyed—they’ll tend to assume the single illustration demonstrates the greater truth because it’s the most immediate example.
The best way to exploit the availability heuristic, political consultants know, is to find the unstable territory between the legitimate facts and a smear. The notorious Willie Horton ad, made in support of George H.W. Bush by a PAC following the strategy of legendary Republican hatchet man Lee Atwater, claimed that Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis oversaw a furlough program that led to the release of a convicted murderer who then, in 1987, raped a woman and stabbed her boyfriend. The ad was devastating, tarring Dukakis as weak on crime and ultimately felling him in the election—despite the facts that Dukakis had inherited the program from the previous governor and that Willie Horton was initially imprisoned as an accessory to a murder, not as the killer.
The ad worked, in part, because the press didn’t question it. In the next four years, however, the ad became notorious, a cautionary tale about race-baiting and low blows, a backlash that constrained Bush from going negative in 1992 against Bill Clinton for fear he’d remind voters of the cynical Horton ad.
When the chips are down, however, there’s no other choice than to go negative. And in 2004, with George W. Bush’s polling numbers plummeting over his handling of the Iraq War, Karl Rove saw that the only way to turn his negative numbers into virtual positives was to completely destroy and discredit Senator John Kerry. An independent group, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, partially funded by a longtime associate of Rove’s, employed negative TV ads and a best-selling book to discredit Kerry’s war record in Vietnam, undermining his primary selling point in the campaign. But the coup de grâce was a negative ad Kerry himself helped create: “Windsurfing” used the singularly damning video of Kerry tacking back and forth on a sailboard off Nantucket, solidifying the Rovian attack line that he was a flip-flopper—and thus reelecting the least popular president in modern times.
“It was sort of amazing,” marvels Bill Burton, a senior strategist at Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama super-PAC. “I think people will look back at that election for a long time, that [Bush’s] approval rating was in the forties and he won.”
What made the attacks explode in the national consciousness wasn’t how often they ran on TV but how they were amplified in the press, which treated them as controversial news and, in the case of Fox News, as completely legitimate. The goal, says Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, is to get the media to cover a piece of campaign propaganda “through the prism of fairness and hopefully lead to a discussion that breaks in your favor.”
When Romney ran his first TV ad against Obama and used a quote taken out of context—a clip of Obama characterizing John McCain’s attitude toward the economy and not his own—an Obama spokesman complained about it and the media gave airtime to the dustup. The upside of the coverage outweighed any blowback, at least initially. “We spent $120,000, and it ran on one station in New Hampshire,” a Romney insider told me. “They totally took the bait.” But there was an unseen price: When Romney was later quoted, out of context, saying he enjoyed firing people who worked for him, the line was seen as fair game.
How the target reacts, of course, is also part of the equation. Kerry was famously flat-footed in responding to Bush’s attacks, which allowed the attacks to stick. And even Romney flailed under the assault from his own quote, which some Republicans saw as a test case about whether he could take the punches Obama would soon deliver. “If he had said that during the general [election], they would have had that on TV the next day,” says the operative at Morton’s.
In keeping with the negative logic, Gingrich’s reaction to Romney’s attacks was to reverse course and retaliate in kind against Romney, launching a massive advertising assault in advance of the South Carolina primary. Or rather, he let the super-PAC supporting him, Winning Our Future, do it for him. The super-PACs are legally barred from communicating with the campaigns they support, even though most are run by former staffers, as Gingrich’s is. “Super-PACs are a version of a political condom,” says James Carville, the legendary political strategist and TV analyst. “They give some measure of protection.”
Gingrich happily echoed and underlined the attacks by the super-PAC supporting him on Romney’s record at Bain, until the furor over their accuracy forced him to renounce them. But the super-PAC kept running clips from the film in paid ads, so Gingrich could stay out of the mud, which was still flying on his behalf. Gingrich seemed reasonable even as he benefited. When Gingrich complained about TV attacks in Iowa from the pro-Romney super-PAC, Romney laughed. “My goodness, if we coordinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house,” Romney told MSNBC.
Coordinated or not, all these forces came together the week before the South Carolina primary to create a nasty, brutish war featuring every possible kind of negativity: vicious attack ads, a spurned wife, surrogates spewing bile. It was Republican Armageddon, and it had the Obamans grinning—though they’re up next. Already, the Obama campaign has had to put up its first ad in response to a Solyndra broadside from the super-PAC funded by the Koch brothers.
TV ads are still the keystone of a negative campaign—but now they’re part of an arsenal rather than the whole war. When I visited Romney’s headquarters, Stuart Stevens showed me a research report on the projected impact of TV in the 2012 election that found that less than half of those between the ages of 18 and 44 got their video content primarily from live television. With DVRs and social media blunting TV’s impact, the report says, the campaign should reduce the frequency of TV and push into “engagement-based” advertising and media like Facebook or online videos.
But in recent years, the reaction of these campaign pros to media fragmentation has simply been to run more, not fewer, TV ads to try to break through. Whereas it used to take eight replays of an ad to see movement in polling numbers, they reason, it now requires a dozen or more. In South Carolina, the super-PACs ran ads up to 22 times a day.
And there may be a more salient point: TV is the way donors measure the impact of their donations, especially to the super-PACs. “If you’re a super-PAC, you’re dependent on your contributors,” says Carville. “Somebody says, ‘Look, I raised you $5 million, hit this son of a bitch on global warming.’” The pro-Gingrich super-PAC was operating with a new $5 million from billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Given the short time horizon Gingrich had to snatch the nomination from Romney, the super-PAC needed to flex its muscles, so it promised to spend $3.4 million of the money on airing TV clips from King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town, the brutal documentary about Romney’s history of laying off workers while at private-equity firm Bain Capital—even before Gingrich disavowed the movie’s contents.
But Adelson’s check will look like chump change compared with what is coming at Obama when the primary is over. The right-wing super-PAC American Crossroads and the non-profit organization Americans for Prosperity are between them promising to raise more than $400 million.* And the Republican operative at Morton’s says that many Republicans are eager to test the theory that Obama didn’t receive his “MRI of the soul” in 2008 because the press was too besotted with “hope.” Now, he says, the gloves are off.
“There’s a real opportunity to demonstrate how people were misled,” says the operative, echoing what Romney consultants are saying privately. “I think people feel jilted, I think they feel like they went out on a date that was a real possibility of something promising and they found out that the person was a complete fucking fraud. I’m going to enjoy watching it a lot.”
At Mitt Romney’s campaign headquarters in Boston, a small crowd of staffers is stuffed in a cramped room, hunched over keyboards, surfing the Internet for news stories or flipping through video reels of Newt Gingrich or Barack Obama giving speeches. They’re monitoring every blip and burp from the opponents, constantly on the lookout for vulnerabilities, flip-flops, gaffes—ammo. On the wall, there’s a poster of a mustachioed Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in the movie Anchorman: “If the war room says it, it must be true!”
The press is still the primary driver of any campaign, and campaigns have become virtual content providers for the media, not just saturating TV and websites and social networks with paid advertisements but pumping the press with a fire hose of items resembling news. “The campaigns are in the content business,” says Steve Schmidt, “and a lot of that content is designed to control the conversation.”
The core of political messaging, whether on TV or in the online press, is the research department, which combs through databases and, in recent elections, entire catalogues of video, looking for “votes and quotes,” the raw material that can be edited into a slamming hit of embarrassing hypocrisy or contradiction, the art form perfected by The Daily Show. The Romney campaign, managed by a former opposition researcher, Matt Rhoades, who is legendary for leaking information on opponents to his pal Matt Drudge, the conservative newshound, employs teams of videographers and has three in-house editing bays for churning out advertisements and videos, a virtual production studio for destroying Obama.
*This article has been corrected to show that Americans for Prosperity is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, not a super-PAC .
The Obamans are similarly busy archiving every speech and quote from Romney. When Romney becomes the nominee of his party, the thinking goes, he will have to tack back to the center during the general election and court independents with more moderate views—and Democrats will be there to receive him with video highlights of any far-right rhetoric to scare the bejesus out of voters.
“The thing we found last cycle in polling, you almost always have to have video now to raise the credibility if it’s a quote somebody says,” says Mike Gehrke, a pollster at Benenson Strategy Group, the Obama campaign’s polling firm. “If you’re going to try to show somebody saying something crazy, you have to have it on video; otherwise, it’s just garbage.”
To begin creating content, campaigns and their super-PAC brethren hire trackers to follow candidates on the trail with cameras, recording their every word and then feeding it back to headquarters to be tagged, catalogued, and archived. In essence, it’s 24/7 surveillance—and free footage for the TV networks and cable channels and online news sites to churn the news on an hourly basis. Before long, it could be on a second-by-second basis: Gehrke was recently shown some new technology used by professional sports scouts that can live-feed video from trackers, allowing central command to instantly replay a clip moments after it happened, meaning a campaign could theoretically create rapid-response videos all day long. “You could whip out a highlight reel like nothing,” he says.
Once the information is collected, it’s organized into themes for the larger strategic playbook and sequenced to drop week by week until November. “Campaigns have all this bundled and ready to drop,” says Lehane. “What I call the ‘arsenal of democracy,’ which contains all my hits, singles, doubles, and home runs, and I think, ‘How am I going to disseminate those over an extended period of time, and how am I going to build up the story line?’ ”
Because there’s only so much bandwidth in any news cycle, finding the right moment to unveil negative information is its own kind of art form. When the Associated Press published a story on the Romney-family charity’s investments in Iran—a story encouraged by the opposition-research department at Priorities USA—the story got lost in the dog days of summer. “It will come up again in the campaign,” promises Bill Burton.
Ultimately, leaking information to the press is often just an attempt to get the imprimatur of a news outlet around a piece of research (or “oppo,” as they call it in the trade), to legitimize it so it can be used in an advertisement. If this makes the press sound like desperate lackeys who are willingly exploited by political consultants—well, the operatives privately regard reporters at places like Politico as little more than glorified referees for their gold-plated research and poll-tested attacks.
An Obama ally working for a super-PAC told me that NBC News’s Chuck Todd “doesn’t necessarily have time to sit there and Lexis-Nexis Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital personnel records. In some ways, reporters become traffic cops for information.”
“Research from campaigns has essentially replaced investigative reporting,” says Devorah Adler, a former research director for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “The free press is where people are going to get their information from, so that becomes your missile-delivery system.”
Twitter, barely a factor in 2008, is now the ideal delivery system for oppo, because information can emerge from the margins through a lower-tier agent, often anonymously, and get amplified on much bigger platforms, and quickly. “What it’s done is shorten the path from the oppo-researcher’s desk to the reader,” says Gehrke.
That means the new rule for negative campaigning is emerging, the same one that applies to TV advertising in a fragmented cable spectrum: repetition, ad nauseam. “For instance, the flip-flopping angle with Mitt,” explains Rodell Mollineau, president of pro-Obama super-PAC American Bridge 21st Century. “You can be another organization that puts out the fifteenth press release on that, and sometimes you need to just have twelve, thirteen, fourteen of the same thing, knock it into the people’s consciousness.”
The Obama and Romney campaigns both say they’ll run positive campaigns because people want a real vision for America. But that’s just another way of saying they’ll let the super-PACs do the dirty work. And though it’s illegal for Axelrod to talk to Bill Burton about coordinating a negative message on Romney, Axelrod can simply use press stories to telegraph attack lines, which then get echoed by other operatives and media. Lehane says Politico, in particular, is now the interlocutor between the top strategists and their allies. “Now you effectively have the person who is your field marshal do an interview on Politico, and it gets around the world a lot faster than the old fax approach,” he says.
This, of course, is how Fox News has served as a virtual propaganda arm of the Republican Party, giving Karl Rove, the strategic captain behind super-PAC American Crossroads, a paid role to telegraph the super-PAC’s posture toward Obama. In The Wall Street Journal, another Murdoch organ, Rove writes columns directing the troops in precisely the arguments to make.
In recent years, presidential campaigns have increasingly focused on performing “self-oppo,” creating a negative dossier on their own candidate to prepare for potential attacks and blunt the impact when they come up. Lehane tells the story of finding a potentially deadly item alleging that the Clintons had used the White House for fund-raising purposes in 1997. To kill it off, Lehane purposefully leaked it to “a very conservative news outlet” in hopes of making it radioactive for the mainstream press, who would view it as a partisan hatchet job. “It slipped below the surface, never to be seen or heard from again,” he recalls.
But that was fifteen years ago, and defending oneself in the current media age can be fruitless. With the advent of amateur political agents on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, the hits come at a blinding pace, all day, every day, and seem to inch further and further below the belt. Truth is, nobody seems to know where below the belt even is, or care.
“Now, because of the pressure of social media, it renders verdicts almost instantaneously, and it’s pressed mainstream media to render verdicts almost instantaneously,” says Bob Shrum, John Kerry’s chief strategist in 2004.
And if a candidate doesn’t go negative, he’s liable to be inundated by his opponent’s attacks—and unable to make a positive case. “A good hit buys you a little bit of room,” says Devorah Adler, “and that’s really all you need.”
The Washington consultants, of course, are happy to oblige with the hits. Making negative ads and buying television airtime are, after all, how they get paid. Political image-makers like Stuart Stevens and Jim Margolis are an insular fraternity who gain cachet from high-stakes campaigns and then parlay their influence into lucrative corporate accounts when the election is over. The same faces reappear year after year. The man who helped produce the infamous Willie Horton ad in 1988? Larry McCarthy, who created the anti-Gingrich ads in Iowa for the pro-Romney super-PAC.
Here then is the presidential-election-industrial complex, an industry made up of for-hire mercenaries whose loyalties shift from cycle to cycle. “We’re not in the ‘cause’ business,” says Fred Davis, a veteran Republican ad-maker who until recently was working for a pro–Jon Huntsman PAC. “There was a long time when Stuart Stevens wasn’t big on Romney. You’re in love with whoever’s paying you.”
Even political distinctions like Republican and Democrat can seem like mere trade associations. Lehane, a friend of Republican Steve Schmidt’s from California political circles, arranged a cameo for Schmidt in Knife Fight, a forthcoming movie about political consultants that Lehane co-wrote, starring Rob Lowe. Jason Meath, who directed the anti-Romney documentary about Bain, worked for Stevens and Schriefer for eight years, including on Romney’s 2008 campaign.
A spokesman for the pro-Gingrich super-PAC told me Meath wasn’t driven by any “vendettas or revenge” to make the anti-Romney film. That leaves as alternative motives political conviction and money. Care to wager $10,000 on which one it is?
Sure, the old pros worry what the all-out-negative campaigning is doing to their business. As Schmidt points out, citing Thomas Friedman’s most recent best seller, The World Is Flat, “McDonald’s never attacked Burger King negatively. It may work for a little while, but at the end of the day what you’re doing is attacking hamburgers. You have the attacks going on so long that they’ve just totally run the system into the ground.” Then again, he says, “I’m not sure it’s productive, in the mood we’re in right now, to relay positive information, certainly if you’re Obama.”
It’s all the other guy’s fault.
“I’m really worried about what this portends for the future, in terms of all this outside, unaccounted-for, secret money,” says Margolis. “Today, one billionaire oilman can overwhelm the system, and while the president may be able to compete, the broader political system is in jeopardy.”
But pay no attention to the men behind the curtain. This is about the future of America!
Oh, who are we kidding? These guys are licking their chops. “It’s going to be crazy,” says a veteran Republican operative, considering the money and the madness of it all, a sly grin spreading across his face, “but wonderful.”