Election 2012: The Negativity Crusade

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

(The Root) — It's going to get ugly, really ugly. And that's saying something. The 2012 presidential campaign has already seen its fair share of negative advertising on both sides. We must all prepare to endure a great deal more of it.


President Barack Obama finished the convention season with three big pluses: He and Vice President Joe Biden are enjoying a 4- to 7-percentage-point postconvention "bump" in support, according to the polls. Obama's approval ratings are up. The Democrats finished their convention with a rejuvenated sense that Obama has a record worthy of defending, a message worth trumpeting and a candidate well worth re-electing.

Mitt Romney, for his part, put on his ticket a running mate who greatly pleases a Republican base that is otherwise deeply doubtful about Romney’s real commitments. As much as possible, the Republican National Convention "humanized" Romney, though it did not appear to successfully persuade many voters to change their minds about him. 

Therein lies the problem. The economy seems to continue its steady, if painfully slow, arc of recovery. At this juncture, then, Obama has the stronger message and prospects. 

Meanwhile, Romney must continue to fight for the loyalty of the most right-wing segment of his party. Yet doing so only makes Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, a very hard sell to middle-of-the-road and undecided voters.

This means that Romney and the Republicans will soon, I fear, have few options except to become very nasty indeed as a way of getting back into the race. If you can't bring up your own positives, as it were, then the modern political playbook suggests that it is time to really tear down the other guy.

We've already seen plenty of evidence that Republicans are willing to deploy the "big lie." Politics is, of course, always a messy business, and no party has a lock on truthfulness. But this Republican ticket seems prepared to elevate misdirection, exaggeration and biased or just outright false claims to a whole new level of mendacity.


I thought we had perhaps seen the end of the big lie when the party that once brought us the claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was exposed as out of step with reality. Likewise, I thought that Republican partisans would exhibit some humility and that at least grudging respect for facts would begin to emerge after the claim that Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks also proved to be false. Not so.

It seems that I have much to learn about high-stakes political prevarication in this postmodern age of the Internet. Ryan's acceptance speech at the RNC, for instance, was widely pilloried by independent fact-checkers. Fox News columnist Sally Kohn went so far as to describe it as "an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech."


But the willingness to engage in distortions and lies is only one pillar of the coming negativity crusade. I strongly suspect that we will also see a return to insidious racial politics. We have already seen some snippets of it over the course of the long Republican primary season.

Onetime candidate Newt Gingrich's descent into labeling Obama the "food stamp president" was the most obvious deployment of the race card, at least until recently. The Republican claim that Obama is undermining work requirements tied to welfare reform is the newest blend of distortion and the politics of racial resentment. 


As former President Bill Clinton explained in his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, the Obama administration was responding to requests for waivers of requirements from Republican governors and did so in such a way that, to quote Clinton, "the requirement was for more work, not less." As Clinton put it: "The claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform's work requirement is just not true."

Nonetheless, Republicans have decided to double down on this claim. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and other congressional Republicans are strategizing to keep the issue alive. They've called for a vote to prevent Obama-administration regulation waivers from going forward.


I don't think the issue here is a principled concern with the purity of Clinton-era welfare reform. The issue is Republicans' attempt to focus on an issue in such a way that it keeps a certain slice of angry white voters in the GOP electoral column by playing on long-standing racial stereotypes, fears and resentments. Raising this phony welfare allegation is just the first salvo in what is likely to be a barrage of Lee Atwater-style skullduggery.

None of us should be surprised, although in 2012 this approach is particularly disappointing. The temptation for a candidate like Romney to play the race card is potentially understandable, when so many other tactics are not working. After all, one suspects that there are a declining number of people who still feel like the Manassas, Va., woman who shared her feelings about the Obamas during a National Public Radio broadcast: "I just don't like him. I don't like to look at him. I don't like his wife. She's far from the first lady. It's about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady and looks like a first lady."


Yes, we do still have people like this in America. In nontrivial numbers, in fact. But I doubt they can muster a winning coalition in American national politics today, and they do not represent the future of America.

As South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said of Republicans' prospects: "The demographics race we're losing badly … We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term." But that doesn't mean we won't see another round of political ads aimed at exploiting remaining negative racial attitudes and resentments in the electorate.


So, my friends, put on your political trench coat, keep an eye on factcheck.org's ratings of who is doing the most lying, and get out a DVD of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech for inspiration. Before this campaign ends, we're likely to be awash in altogether too much negativity, lies and none-too-subtle race-baiting politics. The truly mean season, I fear, is about to begin.

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.