Mitt Romney Is Not An Unusually Negative Candidate

Is Mitt Romney an unusually negative candidate? The New York Times tries to make the case:

As successful as the strategy has been, though, it has raised questions about Mr. Romney's role in turning the primary process into something akin to a civil war, even as it has demonstrated a ferocious, whatever-it-takes style that could hearten Republicans if Mr. Romney ends up in a general election matchup against Mr. Obama.

"It's clear the negative ads are what's keeping this guy alive," said Nelson Warfield, a Republican strategist who worked for Mr. Perry. "It seems like Republican primary voters will not vote for Mitt Romney unless they are forced into it. And the way they're forced into it is when he beats the other guy senseless."

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Romney has also been on the receiving end of attacks from his Republican rivals as well as Democrats. But his aggressive style has been apparent since his first days in politics. For all that he can appear stiff and scripted at times, Mr. Romney has never shied away from deploying pointed and colorful broadsides against his opponents.

The history the piece goes through may be interesting, but the thesis isn't particularly persuasive. For there to be something out of the ordinary about either Romney's performance in this campaign or his history as a campaigner, he would had to have displayed either an unusual volume of negativity, or negativity of an unusual character. And he really hasn't on either count. It may be more noticeable because he's had a series of major opponents, each of whom had to be viciously dispatched in turn. So Romney has had to attack a whole bunch of people, whereas someone like Newt Gingrich only had to attack Romney. But on the whole, he's not much different from any other major candidate.

That isn't to say Romney is some kind of paragon of good behavior; I would argue that he's among the most dishonest presidential candidates we've ever seen, particularly when it comes to President Obama. Romney will say almost anything about Obama, with no regard for whether it's true or not (see here for a few examples). But when it comes to attacking his rivals, that's what candidates do. Some do it with more vigor than others, but there are almost no candidates for a major office who, when in a tight race, don't go on the attack at least some of the time. To say that Romney has a history of criticizing his rivals is to say nothing more than that he's run for office a few times.

And I'd argue that the real measure of negativity is not whether you ran 100 negative ads or 500 negative ads. It's whether your attacks are fair, relevant, and accurate—and what kinds of things you're trying to get voters to believe. Is it nice to try to convince voters that Newt Gingrich is a greedy influence-peddler? Well, it's basically true, and the underlying presumption—that greedy influence-peddling isn't a good thing—is perfectly defensible. But that's very different than, say, when George H. W. Bush and his allies tried to convince Americans that if Michael Dukakis were elected, he would let scary black criminals kill them and rape their women. The problem with that attack wasn't just that it was "negative" in the sense of merely being an attack, but that it played on fear and racism (and used a number of lies along the way).

So yeah, Romney isn't afraid to go negative. But neither is anybody else, and his brand of negativity hasn't been unusual. There's one problem though, which I'll explore in a post later on: negative campaigns can't beat sitting presidents. And if that's all Romney's got, then he's in big trouble.

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