And they say bipartisanship is dead.
Wednesday morning was supposed to be a high point for Mitt Romney, who secured one of the the most sought-after endorsements of the cycle in former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush after an easy win in Illinois. Instead, a coalition of Democratic and Republican political operatives used every possible tool at their disposal, from cutting-edge social media to old-school political theater, to spoil his day completely.
The story began with a gaffe by Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, who responded to a CNN reporter’s question about whether his candidate had moved too far to the right in the primary by comparing the campaign to a certain children’s toy.
“It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch,” Fehrnstrom said. “You can kind of shake it up and restart all of over again.”
The quote, captured by liberal blog ThinkProgress, didn’t spread so much as it was shoved down the media’s throat with one of the most concentrated efforts by professional politicos this cycle. Within hours, it seemed every political flack in the country not aligned with Romney’s campaign had their own video, one-off website or stunt to hammer the message home. Let us review the myriad ways in which we were hit over the head by the Etch-A-Sketch.
On Twitter, Democrats flooded the zone. The DNC helped push a hashtag #RomneyToys, in which users posted such suggestions as “Transformers” and “PACman” or just general Romney mockery.
Pretty soon, even Newt Gingrich was crossing party lines to join in:
Democratic new media strategist Matt Ortega created an entire website within hours of the initial gaffe, etchasketchmittromney.com, in which users could “shake” an Etch-A-Sketch to reveal new Romney positions.
Pretty soon people were hastily chopping together parody web videos along the same lines. American Bridge had “Romney: The Etch-A-Sketch Candidate.”
The DNC put a near-identical video up shortly after, “Mitt Romney: Some Things You Can’t Shake Off.” By the end of the day, having apparently run out of Etch-A-Sketch related jabs at Romney, some Democrats started using the meme on completely unrelated races. Indiana Democrats put out this video attacking Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) with the Fehrnstrom clip at the beginning.
On the campaign trail, both Rick Santorum and Gingrich eagerly fed the story with some well-timed political stunts. At their next speeches, which coincidentally occurred at the exact same time, both candidates pulled out an Etch-A-Sketches to show to the audience.
Santorum’s spokesman tweeted a picture of the candidate holding the toy in the campaign motorcade. Later, Santorum aide Alice Stewart showed up at one of Romney’s events to hand deliver Etch-A-Sketches to reporters.
Add it up and you have a professional political blitz unlike any other. Will voters end up caring half as much as the staffers who dropped over four dozen press releases and e-mails about the Etch-A-Sketch quote into this reporter’s inbox on Wednesday? That’s yet to be seen. But at the very least, the large-scale effort virtually wiped out what was an otherwise friendly news cycle for Romney and replaced it with a headache-inducing frenzy around his gaffe instead.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.