According to those enmeshed in the politics of the moment, presidential elections are generally said to be about something. Two chickens in every pot. Two cars in every garage. Winning the Cold War or the War on Terror or the Next War. The themes vary. But every presidential election is always, in a practical sense, about the previous contest. Just as generals are always fighting the last war, political professionals are forever waging the last campaign. Whatever is perceived to have contributed to victory in the last election will be clutched like a combination talisman/lifesaver in the current cycle. Notice that Republicans are more active in social media this time out? That Dems are running more sharply negative ads?
In this same way, the result of the 2012 presidential election will provide a blueprint for the contest in 2016. It's useful to consider, then, what lessons campaign managers, ad-makers, and of course future candidates will take from this year's campaigning should Mitt Romney prevail at the polls.
The Romney campaign is built upon four pillars: dishonesty, vote suppression, race, and the still-struggling economy. The last is obvious and circumstantial. Presidents benefit from a robust economy, suffer blame for a poor one, and can do relatively little to control either. The other pillars, though, will instruct the field generals of campaigns to follow. Should they amount to a successful strategy, they will be copied and extended.
We are used to politicians stretching the truth, spinning, selectively citing studies, and practicing all the other arts of mendacity employed in the pursuit and maintenance of high office. Yet in the long and ignoble catalogue of political bullshitting, Mitt Romney's campaign stands horned head and hairy shoulders above the squalid competition. Never in the modern era—at least not in my memory—has an American presidential endeavor so enthusiastically embraced the concept of the Big Lie. No useful distortion is left under the rock where it was found. No bit of flummery is too absurd to be trotted out for the knuckle-dragging base to gnaw over. The Romney campaign attaches itself to untruth like a horny little dog on a visitor's leg.
Birtherism? Sure, we know Obama was born in Hawaii—everyone and their uncle has had a peek at his birth certificate. But the racists and haters like to fill their heads with darker imaginings, so let's keep feeding them the Kenya Conspiracy. No need for Romney to wade into that fever swamp himself beyond the occasional "joke." The Limbaughs, Becks, and Savages—the alternate-universe brigade howling daily over the airwaves—will keep the flame of madness burning.
Math doesn't come close to adding up in your big tax plan, the one you've been touting for months? What plan? You've never heard of such a plan. The 20-percent, $5 trillion tax cut everyone has spent too many hours of their lives trying to figure out (or imagine, really, since you've provided virtually no details)? They fantasized it during an opium stupor. The $716 billion the president is allegedly "stealing" from Medicare? That half of all companies receiving federal dollars for green energy have gone bankrupt? Romney's own plan to provide health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions? All of it a steaming bucket of crap.
But what if voters buy the crap? Then you can bet on counterfactualism becoming the norm on both sides. Not just the usual brew of evasions and hyperbole long purveyed by both parties, but the straight whiskey, the global-warming-is-a-hoax-I-don't-give-a-fuck-about-science stuff. Democrats may never match the pure batshit craziness of a Republican Party that denies evolution, but if that's what it takes to win elections in 21st-century America, they'll have to slip into fright wigs, exploding shoes, and red rubber noses, or face political oblivion.
Did I mention that people making big bucks running campaigns—not to mention professional politicians—don't much like oblivion? Not unless it comes with a Jacuzzi and a sizable annuity.
Then there is the question of who gets to vote. Republicans, particularly in swing states where they control the machinery of government (think Florida and Ohio), have spent the past few years furiously trying to purge the voting rolls of any lowdown, cheating sidewinders who might show up at a polling place without Sean Hannity–approved certificates of identification, hoping to vote Democratic. Failing that, they'll run ads in poor neighborhoods telling voters that Election Day has been moved to Christmas.
Efforts like these proved moderately successful in 2000 and 2004. Today's Republican vote suppression is far more widespread and efficient. The same apparatus that is employed to get out the vote can be used to confuse voters into not showing up at the polls. That message arriving at your door might helpfully guide you to the nearest balloting place or, like the ones circulating through minority neighborhoods in Ohio, challenge your right to vote at all. Combine this with vigilante-style voter intimidation, and a state like Wisconsin—seemingly safely in the Obama column—could mysteriously slip to Romney in the wee hours of election night.
Once again, if Romney and the Republicans get away with it, expect to see more assaults on democracy in the future.
Finally, there is the matter of race. There can be little doubt that President Obama loses some potential votes in the white community—even among Democrats—because he is black. I've seen estimates as high as 5 percent. I find it disingenuous, or perhaps willfully naive, to ignore this racial handicap. In a close contest, it could certainly make the difference.
Let us ask ourselves then: Should the perception take hold that Barack Obama lost re-election, at least in part, on account of his race, will the major parties be more or less eager to promote into their ranks presidential contenders of color? I think we know the answer.
So there you have it. If Mitt Romney wins the presidency this November, brace yourself for a future shitstorm of unabashed lies and a return to the days of poll taxes. And don't hold your breath waiting for another African-American presidential nominee.