8 Questions

Dan Balz on topics that will shape the 2012 campaign in the final 100 days

Question 1: Will the campaign be relentlessly negative to the end?

Isn't the answer already obvious? President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney have already spent $59 million to air more than 170,000 negative ads, according to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group. And that doesn't include the handiwork of the super PACs, which are spending prodigiously and whose ads will be even more negative than those by the candidates.

In the estimation of John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who wrote a book about the value of negative ads, this campaign will be "the most negative since the advent of television." The reason: "Neither has a very solid vision about the future except, 'You don't want the other guy,'" Democratic strategist Rick Ridder said.

Not that there won't be some positive ads. The president used the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics to air a generally positive commercial. At some point, say Republican strategists, Romney will need to define himself more positively than he's done so far.

The candidates' advisers think that, however much voters decry the negativity, they watch and can be swayed by negative ads. The more you see an ad on television, the more you can assume the candidate behind it thinks it's working to his benefit. That's why the Obama attack ad featuring Romney singing "America the Beautiful" is running constantly in swing-state markets.

What's interesting so far is that the barrage of negative ads hasn't changed the basic dynamics of the race. As the 100-day clock starts to tick down, the race is still very much within the margin of error and neither side expects that to change much.