Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Romney bought the nomination with flood of nasty ads

By Donna Brazile, CNN Contributor
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Thu April 12, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to supporters Wednesday in Hartford, Connecticut.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to supporters Wednesday in Hartford, Connecticut.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Brazile: Mitt Romney outspent his rivals in the GOP race by huge margins
  • She says his relentlessly negative advertising won him the race, but not affection of voters
  • Romney took extreme positions that will brand his image and will not be easily forgotten
  • Brazile: The currency that determines an election should be the candidate's ideas

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and author of "Cooking with Grease." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

(CNN) -- Maybe money can't buy you love, but it buys a nomination.

Ask Mitt Romney. He outspent Rick Santorum 7-1 to win Illinois, outspent Newt Gingrich 4-1 to take Florida, and more than doubled the competition's spending in Wisconsin. In Pennsylvania, the next big state, Romney had bought nearly $2 million in TV ads even though his main rival, Santorum, had yet to spend a dollar in his home state.

Now he won't have to, having suspended his campaign and vindicated Romney's tactics.

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

Santorum's national communications director, Hogan Gidley, said that Romney's tactics "shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. This is Mitt Romney's pattern. He comes in and carpet bombs his opponents in every state with massive ad buys."

But knowing Romney's strategy and doing something about it are two different things, as his Republican opponents have learned.

When Mark Twain said, "We have the best government that money can buy," I suspect he said it with sarcasm, and some disgust. Romney, though, takes it literally.

Of course, over-spending on election campaigns hardly constitutes a breach of propriety, especially these days. Mass media buys are expensive, and niche voter groups can be difficult to reach. But the way Romney, supported by his super PAC allies, has bought the Republican nomination should give us all pause, for three reasons.

First, there's who he bought. I'm not talking just about the delegates; that's obvious. I'm talking about the kind of political base he and his super PACs purchased. Second, there's what he bought -- the overwhelmingly negative ads. And third, there's why he bought what he bought.

With his eye on the general election, Romney wasn't so much buying the new Republican base -- the ultraconservative, once-and-future tea partiers -- as he was bribing them. It was part of a tried-and-true Nixonian strategy: Run to the extreme right in the primaries, then run as fast as you can to the middle in the general election.

Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom infamously compared the strategy to an Etch A Sketch, saying, "You hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes."

But there's a critical difference between Nixon's strategy and the one Romney now owns: Nixon had credibility with the far right and didn't put it at risk when he rushed to the center. The strategy works only if you've at least shared an ideological beer before crashing the extremist party.

Opinion: Romney is stronger than he seems

The Etch A Sketch comment was so telling because it rang so true. It remains to be seen how loyal or enthusiastic the very conservative Republican voters will be when Romney sounds more moderate tones.

Second, we should be concerned about the kind of ads Romney bought. Unable to present conservative bona fides based on his record, Romney's voter outreach was almost exclusively negative. Yes, he won big in Florida, but he did so because a jaw-dropping 99% of his ads were negative.

Before Santorum suspended his campaign, Romney planned to humiliate the former senator with an ad that reminded voters of Santorum's embarrassing loss in 2006. It was to be the blitzkrieg's opening salvo. We'll never know how much influence that ad -- temporarily suspended when Santorum's daughter was hospitalized -- or the even nastier ads that would surely have followed had on Santorum's decision. Judging from the primary debris Romney has left behind, his less-well-funded opponent had enough.

Why does that matter? It matters because life isn't an Etch A Sketch and the currency that determines an election should be a candidate's ideas.

You can't erase your past or run from your record or evade accountability to the truth. Romney's negative, vicious approach to the primary has affected the all-important "swing independents." In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 64% said Obama "seems more friendly and likeable" than Romney. Only 26% felt the other way. And 55% found Obama more inspiring than Romney; 29% had the opposite view.

Romney should recognize that running for president is more like a tattoo than an Etch A Sketch: The image you create will stick on you, and you can't just shake it off.

This brings us to the third point: Why did Romney buy the election by carpet-bombing his opponents with negative ads and pretending for the first time in his political life to be "severely conservative"? The hypocrisy -- and distortions of the truth -- are so blatant, so obvious, that not only Democrats, but even Romney's Republican opponents are astounded at the audacity, and that he gets away with it.

Romney might have bought the nomination, but voters may well make him pay for the way he did it. Whether they buy his expensive, negative and opportunistic transformation in the fall will be a test of more than just the candidate -- it will be a test of our democracy.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT