In American politics, you must endure not only the excruciating pain of losing a momentous presidential election, but also weeks of “constructive” what-went-wrong commentary, much of it inspired by opponents who are trying to position you for your next defeat.
Some useful early punditry has zeroed in on the role of changing demographics and data-driven field operations in Obama’s victory. But the Romney campaign’s tactical ad strategy is what has caught my eye.
Mitt Romney’s team seems to have forgotten the old notion that if you aren’t punching your opponent in the eye, it’s your own eye absorbing incoming blows. Too often we as Republicans try to calibrate our aggressiveness so that we barely win our races. The problem is, as was the case this year, our calculations are sometimes errant. We’d be better off fighting to win regardless of the political landscape because, ultimately, the Democrats and the national news media will label us the nastiest combatant in any race.
Barack Obama’s team never hesitated. They ran the nastiest political ad campaign in U.S. history in 2008 and then an even nastier one in 2012. Those decisive downscale white voters who should have voted Republican but never showed were chased from the polls by an avalanche of Obama attack ads.
Where were the sharp contrast ads aimed at Obama? We all saw plenty of women sitting around the table smartly musing about the economy, but where were the attack ads demonstrating that Obama’s far-left ideology is robbing us of energy independence? Where were the ads belittling Obama for playing golf more than 100 times while the country teetered on the brink of another recession? Where were the ads based on interviews with college seniors anxious about the lack of jobs and career opportunities?
Every winning presidential campaigner in recent memory — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — was unafraid to launch blistering, sharp-edged ads that took aim at their opponents, while simultaneously crafting positive biographical narratives about themselves that tied into their policy philosophies. Mitt Romney, an exceedingly fine man, did neither.
Before we get too “sophisticated” in our analysis of what went wrong in 2012, perhaps it is as simple as we played nice and the other guys didn’t.
Rick Reed is an Arlington, Virginia-based ad maker perhaps best known for creating the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that many believe helped derail John Kerry’s 2004 presidential candidacy.