The neck-and-neck race between President Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, will be the most expensive campaign in American history. It will be a battle between two robust political organizations. And it is a good bet things are going to get really nasty.
There are genuine differences between the two candidates -- one is a classic liberal, the other a classic conservative -- but neither is a renegade and, despite what the partisan bombast may allege, neither man is anything close to a radical.
Arguably, Obama and Romney each carry as many liabilities as assets. For Obama, the economy continues to be the biggest drag on his prospects. Though things are better now than they have been in several years, and though the Obama camp can correctly argue that the president came into office facing the worst economic conditions in 80 years, many people still expected better.
Obama has accomplished many goals liberals longed to see achieved -- a national healthcare program, gays serving openly in the military, the Iraq war brought to an end -- but he has fallen short of the sky-high hopes many had in 2008. For Democrats four years ago, Obama was a transformational candidate; now very little feels transformed.
Romney never had the love to start with. He did not win the nomination in a euphoric gush of voter enthusiasm; he captured it with superior organization and lots of money. Many Republicans do not especially like him nor trust him; he seems too much a political chameleon for a party that has come to value ideological purity almost above all else. And his congenial, rich financier demeanor does not exactly fit the angry, anti-Wall Street mood of the GOP's tea party faction.
With excitement about both candidates dampened, the election will be more of a tactical endeavor. Victory will be won in a dozen swing states among the 10% to 15% of the electorate who are not already solidly on one side or the other. Those few voters will be targeted, researched, analyzed and manipulated by two highly sophisticated campaign operations.
The Obama campaign has been amassing money and information and building a national organization without the distraction of a primary race. At the end of March, Obama's team reported contributions totaling nearly $197 million. The Romney campaign reported contributions of more than $87 million. Romney has, of course, been forced to spend heavily to fend off rival after rival and, currently, Obama has 10 times the amount of cash on hand. But, according to Bloomberg News, that advantage slips to a less impressive 2-to-1 when money raised by the Romney "super PAC" and other independent Republican groups is taken into account. Ultimately, the total expenditures to elect Romney could match what is spent to keep Obama in the White House.
The primary campaign may have been long and tough, but it proved the Romney forces had the depth and skill to crush the opposition at key junctures in the primary season and has what it takes for a serious challenge to Obama’s powerful operation. During the New Hampshire primary, Romney voter research was able to predict voter behavior based on such things as the kind of car a voter owned or where his kids went to school. That level of pinpoint marketing could be a potent tool in winnowing the ranks of undecided voters in the swing states.
With stakes this high, money so available, organizations so nimble and polling so evenly split, it is impossible to imagine either side holding back from using every weapon in their arsenals. The heaviest guns are attack ads. Expect them to become more vicious and more distorted with each passing day.
By the end of October, if you are not sickened by the tone of the election, it will mean either that you do not own a television or you are a political consultant for one side or the other who is making a ton of money trying to mix cheap shots and big fibs into a winning formula, however poisonous it may be to American political life.