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The Slimary Process: Is This The Nastiest Race Ever?

The prolonged procedure of picking a Republican presidential candidate just gets nastier and nastier. One man maligns another; the victim viciously bites back. And everybody piles on President Obama.

There is more slime being slung back and forth among candidates today than in Ghostbusters II. Maybe we should just rename the whole thing the Slimary Process.

In Florida, for instance, Mitt Romney approves a TV adaccusing Newt Gingrich of influence peddling: "While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in," the message says. "Gingrich was paid over $1.6 million by the scandal-ridden agency that helped create the crisis."

Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, posts an ad on his YouTube channel mashing Mitt Romney: "What kind of man would mislead, distort and deceive just to win an election?" the voiceover asks as Romney appears on the screen. "This man would."

New research from consulting firm Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group shows that 92 percent of all political TV ads aired in Florida over the past week were negative, Politico reports.

Driving around Florida for RealClearPolitics, reporter Erin McPike was exposed to a plethora of impolitic political ads. "They are all very nasty," she told MSNBC recently. "And people keep telling me they think this is the nastiest race they have seen down here."

Sarcasm, Snarkiness And Sliming

Primary season has taken on a noticeably negative chill because "partisan polarization has grown more frenzied in recent years," explains Bruce Miroff, a political science professor at State University of New York, Albany. "Anger is especially rampant on the Republican side — not that there is an absence of it on the Democratic side — so much so that in recent debates the winner has been the angry aggressor." Most often that has been Gingrich, Miroff points out, but in Florida, Romney has gone on the offensive.

In previous years, the attacks that primary candidates made on their rivals "were about flaws like inexperience, opportunism or unelectability," Miroff says. "In this Republican season, the attacks have escalated to charges of lying, shilling for despised interests — for example Freddie Mac — being a 'vulture' capitalist, et cetera."

And on top of that, he adds, President Obama has been characterized as a socialist and as un-American.

The prolonged process this year is made even more messy by the judicially sanctioned political action committees known as superPACs. The superPAC is able to raise vast amounts of funds for a candidate and run ads that attack the candidate's opponent, thereby keeping the candidate himself from getting his hands dirty.

Also, there is arguably in contemporary America more of an appetite than ever for — and acceptance of — sarcasm, snarkiness and, yes, sliming.

"In sum," Miroff says, "this has been a more mean-spirited primary season than in the recent past." It is, he says, "a reflection of the mean-spirited tone that now pervades much of American politics."

'Where's The Beef?'

Sure, there have been malodorous moments in primaries past.

Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University in Kansas, recalls that antics used against John McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries included aggressive "push polling" — negative campaign calls disguised as phone surveys — and unsubstantiated allegations that McCain had an illegitimate child.

Other examples, according to David J. Menefee-Libey, a politics professor at California's Pomona College and author of The Triumph of Campaign-Centered Politics, include the 1976 Republican primaries when "Gov. Ronald Reagan and his proxies were only a bit less caustic in their challenge of President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination."

"Four years later, in turn, George H.W. Bush essentially called Reagan an economic idiot with his 'voodoo economics' remark. Vice President Walter Mondale was openly contemptuous of Sen. Gary Hart in 1984 when he recounted Hart's legislative record and, echoing a popular Wendy's commercial of the day, asked 'Where's the beef?' " Menefee-Libey says.

And, he adds, do not forget the 2008 election "and the endless nastiness between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama."

That last example illustrates the possibilities of mending political fences. Obama and Clinton, now secretary of state, have worked together for several years.

The Beating Goes On

But in 2012, the beat — and the beating — goes on. Ron Paul runs an ad calling out Gingrich for "serial hypocrisy." A Rick Santorum ad says Romney is more liberal on social issues than Ted Kennedy.

In the "Florida Families" TV spot, Romney says "D.C. insider" Gingrich was sanctioned for ethics violations then "resigned from Congress in disgrace."

Meanwhile, another ad from Gingrich lambastes Romney. "Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney," the voiceover intones. "He can't be trusted."

According to a just-released poll from Suffolk University, some 37 percent of likely Republican voters in Florida said Gingrich has run the most negative campaign, while 31 percent pointed to Romney.

The question, of course, is whether the Republican candidates are belittling each other in ways that will only help Obama get re-elected. And, if several candidates decide to stay in the race, the slime could get slimier.

But Menefee-Libey puts the contemporary contretemps in some perspective. He harkens back to 1968 and Sen. Eugene McCarthy's criticism of the Vietnam War stance of his fellow Minnesotan, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. "The Democratic nomination process that year nearly collapsed amid cataclysmic violence in Los Angeles and Chicago," Menefee-Libey says, and what is happening this year is nothing compared to that.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.