Romney, Obama must call a truce on nasty campaigning

As mudslinging escalates, voters will use new digital tools to avoid campaign ads. Romney and Obama can agree to keep negativity in check.

Ted S. Warren/AP Photo
With a cardboard cutout of President Barack Obama behind her, campaign intern Annie Martin makes phone calls Aug. 7 in Seattle to remind people to mail or turn in their ballots as she works at the headquarters for Jay Inslee, the Democratic candidate for Washington state governor.

Veteran political watcher Mark Halperin offered an idea this week that could help Americans feel better about their democracy: With the presidential campaign slipping fast into mudslinging personal attacks, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney should get together and call a truce.

“This is not the campaign I think either of these candidates wants,” he said on MSNBC.

Many political journalists say they’ve never seen a presidential campaign so nasty. And all the fact-checking of political ads done by news outlets has yet to deter the use of inaccurate commercials by both camps.

If indeed a détente can somehow be arranged between the two candidates to run campaigns that are not out-of-bounds – banning ads with false claims or avoiding words like “hate” or “put y’all back in chains” – their campaigns, and hopefully their political-action committee supporters, might catch up with what is happening anyway among Americans.

More voters seem to be taking charge of when – and whether – they hear or see a campaign ad. One survey in June found nearly a third of voters had not watched TV in the past seven days. And those that had watched TV did so on digital platforms that made it easy to avoid commercials.

Among those with DVRs, the vast majority skipped over ads most of the time. More than 40 percent of likely voters are going “off the grid” of traditional TV, relying on alternatives such as social media.

In 2012, finds a new Pew Research Center study, “voters are playing an increasingly large role in helping to communicate campaign messages, while the role of the traditional news media as an authority or validator has only lessened.”

This shift away from broadcast and cable TV has accelerated since the 2008 campaign. And yet $6.6 billion is expected to be spent on television ads this year by all candidates and political parties – or more than half of the estimated $9.8 billion that will likely be spent on such ads, according to research firm Borrell Associates.

Only about 1.5 percent of that money may go for online ads. A study by Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism tried to measure the use of social media by the Obama and Romney campaigns. It found Mr. Obama had four times as much content online as Mr. Romney and has been twice as active in social media.

And yet the study didn’t find either campaign using social media to really engage with followers. “Neither campaign made much use of the social aspect of social media. Rarely did either candidate reply to, comment on, or ‘retweet’ something from a citizen – or anyone else outside the campaign,” the study found.

Negative ads may indeed work to rally the hard-line base of either party to vote. But the cumulative effect is to chase many noncommitted voters away from engaging with either campaign.

Calling a truce could be a quick way to bring them back. And it’s not a far-fetched idea. In the hotly contested Senate race in Massachusetts, the two candidates, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, signed a deal last spring designed to keep out “super PAC” ads.

Politics ain’t beanbag, but like beanbag, there should at least be rules of fair play. Only Romney and Obama can lead in setting those rules. The first one to try might even win more votes.

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