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 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT