By Carten Cordell | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — Barack Obama once bemoaned the “scorched-earth politics” that became a fixture of his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, when an opponent’s aide trailed the future president at campaign appearances and videotaped his every move.
Waiting, hoping for a gaffe.
“Precisely the kind of politics I want to change,” Obama had told The New Yorker.
So far, 2004 has got nothing on 2012. Millions of dollars are pouring into Virginia from presidential campaigns, PACs, Super PACs and other political organizations, inundating the airwaves with attack ads bent on swaying the electorate.
Both Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney are jockeying for position, their poll leads seemingly locked within the margin of error. To get a toehold advantage, both campaigns are trying to out-nasty the other to a hyperbolic degree.
And it’s only August, some 80 days before the election.
“These are the dead days of summer. People are on vacation, at the beach or whatever,” said Wayne Youngquist, a political sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
“What’s going to happen in October?”
Television attack ads are still the weapon of choice. ProPublica, a New York-based nonprofit news outlet, reported Super PACs have dropped $55.7 million on presidential attack ads this election cycle; conservative nonprofits Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity have combined for $60 million in TV ad spending.
But will the attack ads deliver votes come November, or will they turn voters away?
“It really has two effects,” Youngquist said. “One is for base mobilization, in other words, it has the tendency to mobilize your own particular base as a candidate. The other is really trying to suppress either the other side’s support or those who are in the middle and haven’t necessarily made up their mind.
“At some point, they just get disgusted or exhausted by it all, and it tends to drop their turnout.”
Attack ads are nothing new to presidential campaigns. While 1988’s “Willie Horton” ad or 2004’s “Swift boat” campaign provided decisive blows to opponents, Youngquist said voters have too many issues on their minds for a single attack to level a candidate.
“The general climate was not as negative (in 1988) as it is now,” he said. “The Willie Horton ad was done by an independent group and was kind of an outlier. Now, there are a lot of things, but nothing of quite that magnitude that I have seen yet. But we aren’t done yet.”
William Gamson, a political sociologist at Boston College and author of 1992’s “Talking Politics,” says a Willie Horton moment is unlikely, because the public already has informed impressions of the candidates.
“We have an incumbent president who is already defined in people’s minds,” he said. “There’s no role for attack ads at this point. In 2004, (Democratic candidate John) Kerry, I guess, was still undefined enough for those attacks to have an impact, and also, he didn’t handle it with the greatest skill.”
So with little chance to land a campaign killshot, analysts believe that if the battle of attrition continues, the outcome will be low voter turnout, making the election even more unpredictable.
“The negative ads themselves tend to take people who aren’t seeing things in black-and-white terms, who are looking for nuances and are trying to find somebody they want to be attracted to, they tend to get turned off and go into their private life,” Youngquist said.
The more likely tiebreaker, Gamson said, is Romney’s selection of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan for vice president, which makes more apparent the candidates’ gaping ideological divide.
“It is not so much about the negativity, but there are these kind of framing issues,” Gamson said. “What is this election about? I think there is what is called ‘The Atlas Shrugged” vision that appeals to a lot of people, and that vision will be associated with the Romney-Ryan ticket.”
It’s pretty certain the impact of public perception shrinks as attacks ads become more frequent.
“It’s like if you had a steak dinner, how much would you pay for the next steak dinner?” Youngquist said. “The amount of money is getting less bang for the buck as they spend more and more.”
You can reach Carten Cordell at email@example.com.