Traditionally, conservatives have been able to shut down down Democrats by being all shocked and offended. They bait, and bait and bait and then act all upset when you respond -- and get the mainstream media scurrying in a tizzy. it's the same sort of social control you see in some group dynamics where there is a verbally abusive bully who somehow manages to put whoever stands up to him/her in the wrong.
Well, enough Clintonistas are finally out of the D campaign machine and Axelrod is running the campaign under the advice Sean Connery gave in The Untouchables.
In this case, it means running a campaign that takes all the moves developed by Rove, Rollins and others and deploying them without regard for the outrage of the other side. It's about defining the opposition before they can define themselves, focusing on the base, and linking your values to the values of undecided voters.
You will note that every "gaffe" the conservatives have tried to sieze on (e.g., "you didn't build it," "the private sector is doing fine") has had a lifespan of about a week. By contrast, the tax issue continues to dog Romney. Obama has a fairly consistent message, which is thematically similar to the one Republicans usually use: "I will look out for you, the other party looks out for them." Romney is still struggling to develop a message beyond "vote for me if you hate Obama." As this strategy did not work for Dukakis or Kerry, I don't see it working effectively for Romney and Ryan. (Of course, it almost worked for Kerry, so it could work for Romney.)
Obama is helped by being a known quantity. Obama also understands what Republicans have always understood, you don't need to win the country -- just 50.1%. So the fact that people get even more excited in Idaho or Indiana is fairly irrelevant to his overall strategy. Obama is also helped by the fragmentation of the media and the fact that most Americans trust the media even less than they did previously. And consolidation just leaves fewer of them. In 2000 and 2004, Fox News could shame most of the media into following their lead on what to cover. Now no one cares. Fox News is defined, and you can appear neutral as a media outlet by pointing to Fox and MSNBC and not worry about what you are actually covering.
I would feel bad for the demise of civil discourse and our democracy, but we crossed that bridge a long time ago. This is the difference between pacifism and being opposed to violence. A pacifist believes it is inherently morally wrong to respond with violence, and will refuse to do so even when the result is highly negative or even catastrophic. By contrast, a person can be generally opposed to violence, but still willing to resort to violence for self-defense.
Which is where we are in the modern election cycle. "Pacifists" who disdain the attack ads, the SuperPACs and the rhetoric get rolled. But those who oppose such things and such tactics, but who recognize they cannot be stopped from a position of political powerlessness, learn and adapt. As always, the challenge is to set down the tools of war when it comes time for peace. But to meet that challenge, one must survive.