The Campaign Against Romney

Susan Estrich

On Monday, the Democratic National Committee unveiled a new ad targeting Mitt Romney. The 30-second spot (there is also a four-minute version on the DNC's website) is made to look like a movie trailer about "the story of two men trapped in one body."

"Mitt vs. Mitt" focuses on Romney's alleged inconsistency on two issues: 1) abortion, on which he pronounced himself staunchly pro-choice when running for both governor and senator in Massachusetts and now claims to be staunchly pro-life, and 2) health care, for which he once favored exchanges, a critical ingredient in health care reform in Massachusetts, and now opposes Obamacare, which relies on just such exchanges. The ad is running in five swing states, and in all the reports I read and heard on Monday, it is seen as an early effort by President Obama to target swing voters who might be drawn to Romney in a general election.

OK, call me a cynic, but that's not how I see it at all.

First of all, there is almost no money behind the ad. And I mean no money when we're talking about advertisements. Many of the new reports failed to address the point, but according to Republicans (and I haven't heard any Democratic denials), the "buy" is in the neighborhood of $14,000, which in politics is chump change. Even more revealing is the fact that the ad, supposedly targeted to swing states, is also running in Washington, D.C.

D.C. is not a swing state. It's the home turf of the people who write the stories and report the news about presidential politics, as many of them have dutifully done with this ad. More people will read and hear about this ad from the "free media" than from the actual buy. It's an old trick, and the wonder is that the press keeps falling for it.

The second point is about the audience for the ad. Swing voters? Get serious. Sad to say, but swing voters pay about as much attention to early ads as I do to spring training. Wake me up for the playoffs, if not the World Series. The people paying attention right now, in addition to the Washington press corps, are the hard-core activists, the kind of people who vote in primaries and caucuses, the "base," as we call them. Like the candidate or not, they can be counted on to vote for the nominee of the same party they supported last time and the time before.

So why advertise to swing voters this early? Ask anybody who paid attention to the gubernatorial race here in California back in 2002, and they'll explain it to you.

In 2002, Gray Davis, the then incredibly unpopular Democratic governor of California, was running for re-election. Polls showed him getting clobbered by the moderate and very popular two-term Republican mayor of Los Angeles, Dick Riordan. Riordan's only problem was that he had to first win the Republican nomination.

Early in 2002, Davis began running negative ads against Riordan, challenging his pro-choice position by pointing to his support of pro-life judges and other officials. Need I add that Riordan's pro-choice position was, without a doubt, an asset in a general election — but not with Republican primary voters. By the time of the Republican primary, Davis had spent some $7 million attacking Riordan — far more than Riordan's Republican opponent could afford. It worked. He lost the Republican primary to the far more conservative Bill Simon, one of the few candidates for public office whom Davis could beat. And he did.

The lesson of the Davis campaign, which was widely considered to be politically brilliant (even if it did leave people feeling angry enough to recall him a year later), is that you don't have to sit on your hands while the other side picks its nominee. No law prohibits a competitor from trying to weaken the opponent he most fears by making sure that primary and caucus voters are very familiar with positions they will find unpopular.

Nobody is whispering in my ear, but speaking for myself, between Romney and Newt Gingrich, Democrats have far more to fear from Romney. Gingrich's hard-core conservatism helps him a lot more in January and February than it does in November. Maybe it's just a wonderful coincidence, but anyone paying attention to campaign news this week — and by anyone, I mean anyone planning to vote in the Republican primaries and caucuses — will be seeing footage of the "pro-choice" Romney that they will not like.

The president's supporters are doing Newt's work for him. Now why would they do that? To win swing voters 11 months from now? Call me a cynic, but I don't think so. Go, Newt.

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