Romney campaign strategist Stuart Stevens wrote a fine book about his work for George W. Bush on the 2000 presidential campaign, and he aptly describes the moment in just about every big-ticket campaign when the candidate opts to go negative. “You resolve to endure pain to inflict pain. It’s Serb vs. Muslim, Hatfield vs. McCoy, Spy vs. Spy,” Stevens wrote in The Big Enchilada. “You wake up every morning and read the overnight tracking with a sense of dread, heart racing. Media markets become battlefields and tracking provides casualty reports.” This is the moment the 2012 Romney campaign is fast approaching.
The negative spots have already started showing up, and in a matter of days they will be ubiquitous for the poor souls trying to watch the evening news in Iowa and New Hampshire. Because of recent changes in campaign finance regulation, the onslaught may even be greater and nastier than years past because candidates will have some distance from the Super PAC attacks on their behalf.
What’s interesting about Romney’s expected turn to the dark side is how much it resembles what was happening in Iowa and New Hampshire in December of 2008. Then Romney was facing an apparent surge in the polls by Mike Huckabee in Iowa and John McCain in Massachusetts. The Romney response was nothing less than Spy vs. Spy or Hatfield vs. McCoy.
As with Gingrich today, Huckabee reacted to the spots by officially refusing to go negative. Instead, he attacked Romney for going negative, and then showed reporters a campaign ad he had decided not to run attacking Romney. It worked for Huckabee. In Iowa in late 2007, the negative attacks only confirmed voters suspicions of Romney as a robot candidate without clear conviction.
In New Hampshire, McCain spent a lot of time making fun of Romney on the margins, and he ran some tough attacks on Romney as well, especially as they got to Florida. Once again, Romney’s television blitz, which outspent his rivals by multiples, failed to get him where he needed to be. Romney earned silver medals against McCain in Florida and New Hampshire, and had to bow out of the race.
The question this time is whether the field and the candidate are different enough to produce a better result for Romney. It’s an open one. But history suggests it will not be simple. As Stevens wrote in his book, campaigns often come down to the most ineffable commodity of all: “If you’re lucky, really lucky, and maybe a little smarter and tougher than the other side, you win.”