WASHINGTON — When President Obama landed in Cleveland recently to give a speech on the crucial subject of the American economy, a campaign bus plastered with the logo of Mitt Romney showed up, honking. Then circling around. Then honking some more.
When Romney traveled through Pennsylvania on a six-state bus tour, Democrats dispatched protesters, including former governor Ed Rendell, to a WaWa convenience store where Romney was slated to appear. Romney diverted his bus to a different WaWa, spurring calls of cowardice from the Democrats.
Both campaigns have latched onto Twitter as a weapon of choice in instantaneous snipefests, each side eager to tarnish the opposition’s message and gain a minor edge in a rapid news cycle, complete with a clever hash tag.
This race for president — one that will decide who will occupy the most powerful office in the world — has in recent weeks degenerated into a heckling war on the campaign trail, fueled by sophomoric stunts and Twitter taunts.
Heckling has been a staple of American politics and political protest for centuries, of course. Not only can hecklers drown out a candidate’s words on the stump, they can also dominate news coverage of the event. But observers said they could not recall a recent US presidential campaign in which both sides so openly embraced the tactics of on-the-ground, live-action disruption.
“It really does look like the playground at junior high doesn’t it?” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth.
Last month, top Obama adviser David Axelrod arrived outside the Massachusetts State House, holding a press conference to draw attention to what Obama’s campaign calls Romney’s failed record as Massachusetts governor. The Romney campaign scurried to get a group of campaign aides and supporters to hold a counterprotest. Throughout the press conference, they used a machine to blow bubbles at the Obama speakers.
Top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who was in California as Romney staged a press conference outside the closed Solyndra headquarters, later posted an unflattering photo of Axelrod and referred to the incident as “The Boston Massacre.”
When Romney embarked on his bus tour over the weekend, he was frequently met with protesters. The Democratic National Committee had a “Romney Economics: The Middle Class Under the Bus” tour that stopped in most of the places Romney did. The liberal group MoveOn.org trailed with a Cadillac and a fake dog tied to the roof.
Now, the campaigns are squabbling over whether heckling is a fair tactic to employ.
Romney said this week on Fox News Radio that “it would be a nice thing” if heckling stopped but also said, “I could assure you that we do not believe in unilateral disarmament.”
“America has a long history of heckling and free speech,” he added.
“I strongly condemn heckling along Mitt’s route,” Axelrod tweeted on Sunday. “Shouting folks down is their tactic, not ours. Let voters hear BOTH candidates & decide.”
Yet several months earlier, Axelrod wasn’t taking such a high road. In late January, he tweeted a photo of Obama riding in the presidential limousine with his dog, Bo, next to him. “How loving owners transport their dogs,” Axelrod wrote to his nearly 100,000 followers, in a reference to Romney once putting his dog Seamus in a crate atop the family station wagon for a trip to Canada.
Fehrnstrom, in one of the numerous exchanges he and Axelrod have had on Twitter, responded with a tweet referencing Obama’s admission to eating dog meat as a boy in Indonesia.
“The fact that the consultants are injecting themselves into the race instead of sticking to their job is not a good thing,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster.
Yet Twitter, which was created in 2006 but didn’t play a role in the 2008 election, is one of the chief vehicles for inter-campaign sniping. The type of snarky comments that may have been aired within the confines of a campaign war room are now blasted out publicly for all to read.
After Romney communications director Gail Gitcho stumbled over who runs the Congressional Budget Office in a CNN interview, Obama campaign press secretary Lis Smith immediately sent out a mocking tweet with the hash tag, “bruuuuutal.”
“This is a function of the 24-hour news cycle,” said Dan Payne, a Boston-based Democratic consultant. “This beast must be fed several times a day. Some days there aren’t interesting things to say, so you wind up pulling stunts or making a charge. It evaporates 24 hours after it occurs, so there aren’t any big long lasting stories in this campaign.”
Part of the ethos of the Romney campaign is a propensity for practical jokes that dates back to Romney’s childhood and extends to his current campaign.
During his bus tour last weekend, Romney left a note for reporters noting their nice bus accommodations and adding, “P.S. - Erased your hard drives.” It was an apparent reference to a Globe report last year that revealed that Romney’s gubernatorial aides had purchased their state-issued hard drives and that Romney administration e-mails were purged from the state servers.
“Ever since Romney clinched, the presidential race has essentially been about nothing,” Payne said. “By and large, they are speaking very generally about conditions in the country. And very specifically about each other.”
“Both sides are playing gotcha games,” he added. “The serious discussion gets put off to the fall — I hope.”