If President Obama’s campaign machine can define Mitt Romney before his own campaign even tries, my bet is Obama wins reelection.
It seems the Romney campaign believes that any day or dollar spent talking about anything other than the economy is a day or dollar wasted. Unquestionably, the economy’s state and direction, as well as voters’ perceptions on Obama’s handling of it—are important. Obama’s approval ratings on the subject are awful. According to the June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 42 percent of voters approve of the way Obama has handled the economy, while 53 percent disapprove. Additionally, just 31 percent think the country is headed in the right direction; and 61 percent believe it is on the wrong track. Voters seem quite willing to fire Obama as a result.
A willingness to fire the president, however, is only one step. Voters also have to be willing to hire Romney. If the challenger is deemed unacceptable, a potentially decisive slice of the electorate could reluctantly return to the incumbent. Voters’ willingness to hire Romney is being severely damaged, at least in swing states, by the advertising efforts of the Obama campaign and Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC. The ads are devastatingly tough, portraying the former Massachusetts governor as a private-equity version of Gordon Gekko, a heartless corporate barracuda who has made a fortune acquiring and looting companies, laying off workers, and ruining lives and communities. That’s the story line, anyway. These ads lead to the conclusion that Romney is not to be trusted in the Oval Office.
Romney’s tenure running Bain Capital, layoffs, outsourcing, and now his personal finances give Democrats plenty of great fodder. If you live in or visit a swing state and turn on a television set, you will be deluged by these ads. Maybe they are accurate and fair, maybe they aren’t. Regardless, they are hard-hitting and running with great frequency.
What makes the ads effective is that voters know next to nothing about Romney, other than that he is a rich and successful businessman, and perhaps that he is a Mormon. Being quite rich and successful means—and focus groups I’ve watched support the notion—that more than a few voters may be willing to stipulate that Romney is a smart guy and probably knows a lot about the economy. But nothing the Romney campaign has said would give voters a reason to believe that he can be trusted or that Oval Office decisions in a Romney White House would be based on the same values that they want their president to have. The Obama campaign and Priorities USA are more than willing to fill in the blanks.
A pretty good case can be made that the daily headlines about depressing economic news and a tough job market—whether for 50-year-olds who lost jobs or college grads trying to get a start—drive the economic issue far better and more effectively than anything the Romney campaign can possibly do.
The only ad that has attempted to connect Romney with voters in a way that portrays him as a three-dimensional human being wasn’t even put out by his campaign. The pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future has run “Saved,” which features Romney’s former Bain Capital partner Robert Gay telling the story of his teenage daughter who was missing in New York City in 1996. As soon as Romney heard about the missing girl, he shut down Bain’s offices in Boston so that virtually the entire staff could hustle down to New York. Romney set up a search headquarters at the LaGuardia Marriott and even enlisted Bain accountants and lawyers to help distribute flyers and get the word out about the missing girl. A tip line received an anonymous call that was traced to a phone in New Jersey where the girl was found, safe. It’s a moving story and TV spot, but that’s the sum total of paid advertising that could help inoculate Romney from withering attacks. Worse yet for the candidate, Restore Our Future hasn’t run the spot since May 17.
Romney won the GOP nomination on a very tactical level. He out-fundraised, out-organized, and outmaneuvered his rivals. But even then, his story was never told. All the messaging seemed to be oriented toward selling him as the most conservative person on the planet. Now it’s just about the economy, not about him. Every week, usually on Friday, the Romney campaign launches a new ad, but these never sell him.
In the old days of politics, one of the first stages of campaign advertising was to introduce the candidate to the voters, to build the candidate up as someone worthy of the responsibilities of the job, and to create a real connection between the voters and the candidate. It’s hard to find the kind of advertising these days that makes someone say to themselves, “Wow, what an impressive person. We would be lucky to have them as our leader!” One campaign that did was Obama’s in 2008. Four years ago, Obama connected with voters on a personal level, and he won. Sure, voters were in the mood for change, the economy was awful, and Obama had more money. But he did connect on a personal level.
It isn’t clear when the Romney campaign plans to introduce its candidate to the voters, to have his sons talk about their Dad, or to have Ann Romney talk about her husband. Maybe they plan to hold off until the convention. But if I were running, every day that undecided and independent voters in swing states were getting pounded with ads portraying me as an awful person, I’d think I would want some testimony to contradict it. I’d want to have someone telling those voters what kind of person I am and why I am worthy of their support. But what do I know?
This article appears in the July 10, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.