Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Romney bought the nomination with flood of nasty ads

By Donna Brazile, CNN Contributor
April 12, 2012 -- Updated 1424 GMT (2224 HKT)
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
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 2148 GMT (0548 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT