All signs point to more of the same.
“This campaign is going to set the standard as the most despicable since 1988, and this year it’s both sides who are doing it,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a former Boston-based Democratic media consultant who now teaches communications at Boston University.
That was the year that President George H.W. Bush’s campaign ripped into Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, for furloughing Willie Horton, a black inmate who terrorized a white Maryland couple while out of jail. The Bush forces had an ad suggesting a Dukakis presidency might mean that more Hortons would be free.
The rhetoric this year is approaching that level.
Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., claimed on the Senate floor that Romney had paid no taxes for 10 years, but Reid has offered no solid proof.
An ad by a group that backs Obama tried to link the death of a steelworker’s wife to Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, the investment firm he co-founded. But the steelworker lost his job at the Bain-purchased Kansas City steel plant after Romney left Bain, and his wife didn’t become sick until several years later. Romney ran an ad calling the charge “disgusting.”
The latest bout began Tuesday, when Vice President Joe Biden told a Virginia audience that Romney “is going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street," he said, adding, "He is going to put y’all back in chains." Romney has said he wants to revamp certain regulations that affect banks and investment firms to make them more realistic.
The putative GOP nominee fired back, accusing the White House of fostering “division and anger and hate.” Obama’s allies suggested that Romney had become “unhinged.” Then Romney said Wednesday morning on CBS that Obama “seems to be running just to hang on to power. I think he’ll do anything in his power to try and get re-elected.”
Summertime demonizing is hardly a new phenomenon. In 1996, President Bill Clinton was able to define Republican challenger Bob Dole as closely tied to congressional Republicans who were falling out of public favor. Backers of President George W. Bush raised questions in 2004 about the Vietnam War service of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic standard-bearer and a decorated veteran.
What’s different this year is that the rough-and-tumble of the race has come earlier and is harsher, with both sides playing largely to their bases of support. The undecided vote is seen as roughly 10 percent of the electorate, perhaps less, according to recent polling.
Said David Carney, a Republican political consultant: “It’s much easier to turn out 80 to 85 percent of your base than to convince the undecided.”