Campaign 2012 Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Anything But Short

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General-election season is upon us, and Obama-Romney doesn't look like it's going to be one of those fun, inspirational presidential contests.

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Now that the Republican primary is just about over, political junkies cast their eyes ahead to the next seven months, and in many cases, their anticipation is tinged with dread.

Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney, we're pretty sure, is not going to be one of those fun elections -- a gleeful free-for-all infused with a sense of passion and possibility. Rather, it's going to be a life-sucking slog -- a mirthless, grinding blitzkrieg of unrelenting negativity.

As you look forward to Nov. 6, the essential characteristics and contours of the campaign you can expect along the way are already clear. It will be:

* Expensive: Between two candidates with major blue-chip donor bases, two healthy, determined political parties behind them and a universe of super PACs and other outside groups unleashed by a new campaign-finance landscape, no expense will be spared over the course of this campaign. Through the end of February, the Obama campaign had raised $157 million, while Romney's had raised $74 million. The Democratic Party has another $82 million in cash on hand, the GOP $90 million. Over the course of the campaign, Romney hopes to raise $600 million, Obama $750 million or more, according to the New York Times. And then there are the super PACs: They've already spent $86 million thus far, mostly on the Republican primary, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. These are nearly unfathomable amounts of money -- enough to buy a whole fleet of $60 million fighter jets, or dwarf the GDP of a small nation like Tonga ($816 million). The $12 million Mitt Romney spent on his house in California looks like pocket change by comparison.

What on earth do they use it for? The Atlantic's Nicole Allan broke down the major expenditures of the 2008 Obama campaign and found that the biggest ticket by far -- $435 million -- was TV ads. If you live in a swing state, then, the effect of the presidential campaign on your everyday life is likely to be wall-to-wall television commercials. In fact, the Obama campaign has been advertising in swing states for months now, and recently went up with its first negative ad slamming Romney on energy policy. Which brings us neatly to our next point.

* Negative: Forget the inspiring currents of 2008, when Obama drew tens of thousands to rallies all over the country, filled with inspiration for a better future. Sarah Palin, too, for all her polarizing qualities, represented something new, exciting, and to many on the cultural right, inspirational. This time around, no figure or theme quite so fresh looms on the horizon. Three bruising years of economic doldrums and legislative gridlock have pushed the president's approval rating at times into the low 40s, though it's now rebounded to 49 percent. Romney, never the type of politician to sweep crowds off their feet with soaring oratory, has seen his image further dented by a tough Republican primary and a preemptive Democratic campaign; he now appears to be the most unpopular presidential nominee in modern history. And so two candidates of whom the public is generally skeptical and a bit weary will devote their energy to tearing one another down, seeking to terrify voters into casting votes for the lesser evil -- or just staying home.

* Long: With each side flush with cash and focused on its opponent, there will be no down time from the presidential campaign in the next six and a half months. The recent kerfuffle over Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen's comments on Ann Romney was a perfect example of the kind of intensive, day-in-day-out trench warfare the campaign is likely to consist of, with torrents of surrogate statements, press releases and diversionary tactics as each side seeks to gain some nebulous, incremental advantage from a fleeting, ginned-up controversy. Meanwhile, on the ground in swing states, the Obama campaign has been building up and staffing its network of field offices, the engine of its grassroots-based turnout operation, and is exploring new frontiers in microtargeting and digital contact with voters. The Romney campaign is generally thought to have some catching up to do -- but as the nimble, all-out push on Rosengate showed, the Republicans are ready to fight every day until Nov. 6, too.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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