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Why Neither Side is Bringing the Nasty

I’m on record claiming that Team Obama is playing a tougher form of bean bag this time around than in 2008. But, even so, I agree with Jon Chait that this election won’t really be that nasty. I just think so for different reasons. 

Chait argues that it’s all about elites. As he puts it: 

The socially liberal, economically conservative sensibilities of the party elites are working in tandem to hold back Republicans from attacking Obama on cultural grounds, and to at least complicate Obama’s populist attacks on Romney’s business career.

I’m not sure I agree, at least on the right. Chait’s idea is that, while there may be plenty of conservative millionaires and billionaires who consider Obama culturally and ideologically alien, and who are willing to put money behind that message, there are many more who consider those arguments crude and embarrassing and generally out of bounds. 

But my sense is that, however crude and embarrassing, GOP elites would be more than willing to paint Obama as an alien force if they thought it would work. (They certainly didn’t have a problem embracing the message that John Kerry was a wine-swilling crypto-Frenchmen.) The reason they’re not going that route is they don’t think it’ll work. And they’re probably right. 

As I understand it from talking to various Obama strategists, the data shows that up-for-grab voters went with Obama in 2008 because they liked him, thought he was a trustworthy guy with a nice family, someone genuinely intent on bringing change, etc., etc. Even though they may be disappointed with the country’s direction over the last four years, they continue to have warm feelings toward him personally. That makes the Obama-as-alien argument too hard a sell. It requires persuading these voters not only that what they deem true today is wrong (i.e., that Obama’s a good-enough guy), but that Obama somehow duped them the first time around. Suffice it to say, it’s not something these voters are going to be easily persuaded of.

It would be shocking if Republican operatives didn’t have access to the same public opinion data. And, in fact, it turns out they do. As the Times reported earlier this week, the Crossroads-industrial complex that Karl Rove created basically sees the landscape the same way. According to the Times, the ad campaign the group recently launched was a response to “one of the greatest challenges for Republicans in this election: how to develop a powerful line of attack against a president who remains well liked even by people who are considering voting against him.” 

The piece continued: 

As Crossroads strategists would learn after 18 different focus groups and field tests, from Missouri to Colorado to Ohio to Florida, the harshest anti-Obama jabs backfire with many Americans.
Middle-of-the-road voters who said they thought the country was on the wrong track were unmoved when they heard arguments that the president lacks integrity. And they did not buy assertions that he is a rabid partisan with a radical liberal agenda that is wrecking America.
“They are not interested in being told they made a horrible mistake,” said Steven J. Law, president of Crossroads GPS and the affiliated “super PAC,” American Crossroads. “The disappointment they’re now experiencing has to be handled carefully.”

Of course, that still leaves the question of why Obama is going to be relatively civil to Romney. On this, I think Chait has more of a point: There is a certain norm, or at least certain squeamishness, among Democratic elites that reins in aggressively populist attacks against Wall Street and corporations. Perhaps more importantly, Democrats realize that their best hope for reaching financial parity with Republicans rests with progressive-minded financiers and tech entrepreneurs, who are likely to chafe at that sort of thing. 

But that only explains why Obama will be relatively restrained in attacking Romney’s record at Bain. It doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t pummel him with ad hominem attacks labeling him soulless, calculating, unprincipled, cynical, etc. It was pretty common to hear the Obama folks bandy about all those adjectives (and worse) a bit earlier in the cycle, but you don’t hear much of that any more. Is this also the influence of prudish elites?

I don’t think so. As on the right, I think you see Democrats making a pretty sober calculation about which message has the best chance of succeeding. And the problem with portraying Romney as unprincipled and cynical is that it leaves open the possibility that he might really be a moderate, or at least govern as a moderate, which would be reasonably attractive to swing voters. Much better to argue, as Obama has, that there’s no reason to doubt that Romney believed what he said when he took tough stances on immigration and spending and social issues during the GOP primaries. He’s a man of conviction after all—just the wrong kind.

All of which is to say that, while elites may have some leavening effect on the campaign discourse, the relative civility is really a product of each side calculating that the nastiest messages simply aren’t the most effective, if for relatively idiosyncratic reasons. In other words, don’t look for 2016 to be quite so high-minded. 

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber