In post mortems of the 2012 presidential race, President Obama's team gave much credit for their victory to early ad campaigns portraying Mitt Romney as an uncaring, out-of-touch rich guy. "We defined the race and Gov. Romney before the conventions," David Axelrod told the Harvard Political Review in 2013. "And he was digging out of that hole for the remaining two months."
Now, there's talk in the political world that Hillary Clinton and Democratic strategists are trying to do the same thing to Donald Trump â€” to define him, and the race, before the conventions and put him in a hole he can't dig out of. Democrats are running millions of dollars in ads portraying Trump as dangerously unfit for the office of president.
The question is, can Clinton do to Trump what Obama did to Romney?
"That is exactly what is occurring," said Republican strategist Curt Anderson in an email exchange Wednesday. "The ad with the young girl in the wheelchair is a very rough ad, and it is playing everywhere. The Democrats are going by the exact playbook that worked against Romney."
"Meanwhile," Anderson continued, "there is ZERO substantial advertising on the Republican side. One Super PAC has put out one ad; it's a good ad, but I think it's only a $1 million dollar buy on national cable. The Democrats are going hard right now to bury Trump, just like they did Romney."
And one more thing: "Our media buyers are telling us this morning that, in addition to the substantial advertising Priorities USA is already doing, Hillary is booking a substantial flight of advertising right now â€” to start [Thursday]. Nevada, Virginia, Colorado, Florida, for sure..."
Indeed, not long after Anderson wrote came confirmation that the Clinton campaign is in fact starting a massive ad campaign targeting Trump. The headline of a Politico story on the buy was "Clinton to unleash TV hell on Trump." Although some of Clinton's ads will be positive portrayals of herself, the point is to overwhelm Trump early.
Neil Newhouse, who was Romney's pollster in 2012, sees something similar to what happened four years ago, but with some differences. "This feels more free-wheeling than the 2012 election," Newhouse told me via email. "The '12 Obama campaign did a pretty effective job of defining Mitt through paid advertising at this critical juncture of the campaign, when our campaign funds were running dry. Currently, Trump seems to be painting himself into the corner, and Hillary's supplying the brushes. The result could pretty effectively be the same."
In a conversation Tuesday afternoon, a member of the Trump circle seemed decidedly unconcerned. What's going on now is not like what happened to Romney, he explained. "One, people don't pay attention to the media like they did, and two, Romney did precious little to dispel it," the person said. "I remember sitting in Tampa when they showed the video of all the good things Romney had done, and people said why didn't we hear about this earlier?"
It should be added that there is some debate about whether the early Obama ad campaign played a key role in the 2012 results. And some believe such a strategy might be less effective today if national security concerns come to dominate the race. "Not sure in this environment that typical rhetorical gymnastics will move voters who are undecided," said veteran GOP operative David Carney in an email exchange. "They want to know who is going to protect their kids, not someone who has ivory-tower ideals that won't stop a single bullet, knife blade, or suicide vest."
Still, millions of dollars in essentially unanswered advertising make some Republican strategists very nervous. "I realize that Trump has rewritten the rules of politics thus far, but effective attacks cannot be allowed to stand," said Curt Anderson. "I think that's a rule that will stand up. Of course, you can't blame Trump for thinking that advertising doesn't work, as none of it hurt him so far. But here's the difference: effective advertising will hurt him. The Bush Super PAC and the #NeverTrump crowd missed the 'effective' part."
Trump, always confident, is taking an enormous gamble. He is, at least for now, betting that the huge amount of free media attention he receives will counter the onslaught of negative ads he is about to experience. Maybe so. But Trump is in a different environment today than he was a few months ago. The general election campaign is underway. Media coverage is likely to be more adversarial. The attacks on him are likely to be sharper, with more impact, with a sense that the playoffs are over and the finals are underway. In that context, voters in those key swing states will be seeing Democratic ads over and over with no effective pushback from Trump. As Axelrod said of Romney four years ago, Trump could find himself digging out of that hole for the next few months.