As 2016 looms, Democrats and Republicans are eyeing the White House and charting plans to do whatever it takes to covet 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. GOP strategists anticipate Democrats will use heavy negative advertising to try to effectively win the 2016 presidential contest even before it begins.
Whichever candidate emerges as the GOP front-runner, they warn, will be hit with a firestorm of attack ads in vital swing states. The goal will be to erect a swing-state firewall similar to the one that shielded President Obama in 2012.
Already, attacks have begun targeting the presumed GOP front-runners in key swing states. But the real action will begin once a GOP front-runner emerges.
With the Democratic primary struggle expected to be brief, Democratic-leaning PACs may be free to launch early attack ads.
The go-negative early tactic would be a replay of the strategy employed by the Obama campaign against Mitt Romney. In August 2012, Priorities USA, a PAC directed by former Obama campaign officials, spent over $10 million airing an anti-Romney ad. It strongly suggested that the former Massachusetts governor was responsible for the death of the wife of a steel worker whose plant was shut down.
Networks, major newspapers, and media fact checkers all universally denounced the ad as an outrageous distortion – but the damage with swing voters had already been done. The ad aired over and over in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Complaints that the ad was unfair only seemed to give it wider exposure in the media.
The irony of the Romney campaign’s fecklessness in countering those tactics is that the Democrats who used them were essentially following the playbook used in 2004 by the Bush campaign. It executed a similar strategy targeting then-Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
In 2012, Romney seemed too distracted by the primary and the run-up to the convention to respond effectively to the attacks. His campaign would later spend tens of millions of dollars in Ohio, Iowa, and Virginia to try to counter the negative impressions. But he would go on to lose in Ohio by about 160,000 votes.
The Boston Globe’s post-mortem on the Romney campaign concluded: “One of the gravest errors, many say, was the Romney team’s failure, until too late in the campaign, to sell voters on the candidate’s personal qualities and leadership gifts.
“The effect was to open the way for Obama to define Romney through an early blitz of negative advertising. Election Day polls showed that the vast majority of voters concluded that Romney did not really care about average people.”
Assuming liberal-leaning PACs repeat the tactic in 2016, their objective will be to make the GOP nominee as radioactive as early as possible in key states. Driving up a candidate’s negatives before the general-election campaign even begins is a proven political stratagem.
If it succeeds, the eventual nominee will have to fight hard just to get back to neutral with swing-state voters. After all, there is little hope of a GOP victory without carrying Ohio and Florida.
There are some indications the Democratic attacks against the presumed GOP front-runners have already begun. American Bridge and other liberal PACs have prepared videos blasting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. One American Bridge video shows a series of interviews from CPAC attacking Bush’s stance on immigration and common core. Another ad suggests Walker is too extreme, labeling him a “fringe candidate.”
But there are several reasons to believe it may be harder to brand the GOP nominee from the get-go this cycle. For one thing, this year’s GOP convention kicks off on July 18, giving the Republican nominee nearly six extra weeks to tell their story.
According to political strategist Matt Keelen, president and CEO of the D.C.-based Keelen Group, the biggest factor for Republicans in 2016 will be nominating a standard-bearer who can exploit the failings of the Obama era.
“The gap been the 1 percent and the middle class has grown under Obama’s crony-friendly economy,” Keelen explains. “The poor are doing worse while Wall Street and Obama’s friends’ businesses are booming.”
This cycle, the Republican nominating convention will be held in Cleveland, Ohio’s second-largest city after Columbus. Launching major attacks while Cleveland is hosting the convention could backfire.
Republicans will be ready for the firewall strategy this time, and will no doubt launch plenty of attack ads of their own in response. GOP leaders have acknowledged they blundered in 2012.
After that election, RNC chairman Reince Priebus ordered to comprehensive review of GOP tactics. The resulting report, called the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” concluded: “It was a surprise to no one on the Republican side when the Obama campaign began to define Gov. Romney as unacceptable … However, the sound of silence from our side in response to the damaging attacks must never happen again.
“Many post-election analyses correctly concluded that our side was never able to recover from these attacks once we let them stand with minimal response,” it stated. “Our friends and allies must not let this happen again.”
Among the proposals to better respond this cycle: Better communication and coordination between state-level political parties and national GOP leaders; more effective canvassing and social-media technology to get out the Republican candidate’s message and counter negative attacks; a rapid release of information from the campaign to enable its allies to counter the attacks; the use of positive advocacy to effectively relate the GOP candidate’s story, so that any subsequent negative attacks would have less of an impact.
Says Keelen: “The key strategy for Republicans in 2016 will be nominating a candidate such as Gov. Scott Walker, or Sens. Rubio, Ted Cruz, or Rand Paul.”
The right candidate, he says, could “put the Democrats back on their heels with working class voters. Which is where they belong since their policies are crushing the working class.”