Bashing Bain: Why Obama’s New Attacks on Romney Might Not Work

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MANDEL NGAN / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks on the economy May 8, 2012 at the State University of New York in Albany.

The much-heralded and long-awaited Obama campaign media attack on Mitt Romney began Monday with a reporter conference call and the release of two videos bemoaning the pain caused after Romney’s former private equity firm, Bain Capital, took over a Missouri steel company called GST Steel. The effort is textbook negative politics, from the sympathetic white working class steel men bemoaning their lost careers to the talk about “values” and the shots of lonely industrial wastelands left by the collective failure of Romney, Bain and GST.“This is about the values Romney lives by as a businessman, and the values Romney would lie by as a President,” said Stephanie Cutter, a deputy campaign manager, during the conference call. “Mitt Romney’s economic values would do damage to the middle class.”

But that doesn’t mean this new campaign will succeed just as Obama’s advisers hope. The closest historical analogy to the current onslaught, which is sure to be followed by more ads in the coming months, is the effort mounted in the spring of 2004 by George W. Bush to define his opponent, John Kerry, before Kerry had a chance to raise the money needed to defend himself after the Democratic primary. Like Kerry then, Romney now lacks the resources to defend his own record. He will spend most of the next month criss-crossing the country to attend fundraisers, which will be interspersed with occasional campaign events to grab media attention.

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But the parallels to 2004 don’t go much further. Polls suggest that many Americans have already internalized much of the weight of Romney’s Bain career, after a bruising primary fight that focused for much of January and February on his record as a private capital investor. During the first few months of this year, under a sustained assault by his primary opponents with ads like “King of Bain,” Romney saw a sharp spike in the percentage of Americans who viewed him negatively, from just over 35% to just over 45%. By contrast, in 2004, Kerry came out of the Democratic primary without much damage. According to Gallup, his unfavorability rating actually dropped from 31% to 26% between the beginning of January and the middle of February of that year, when Kerry began the process of wrapping up the nomination. It was only after the Bush assault began a few weeks later that his negative numbers began to rise by about ten points. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Romney’s numbers can’t drop further, but it does mean that the Obama attack is, at least for the moment, retreading old ground.

Another difference is the remarkable level of support that Romney is receiving from outside groups, which simply did not exist at this point in the 2004 election. While Bush was able to blanket airwaves uncontested, Obama has been fending off television ad buys by four different groups that oppose the president, Crossroads GPS, Americans For Prosperity, the American Future Fund and Restore Our Future. Each of them have the ability to raise unlimited amounts of money from wealthy donors, and to spend that money tarnishing Obama’s record. As a result, Obama has been forced to play defense even as he tries to capitalize on Romney’s relative lack of general election funds. Recent court decisions, which undid campaign finance regulations that were in place in 2004, have effectively eliminated a key advantage of incumbency.

(MORE: Why the Obama Campaign Is So Confident About Beating Romney)

A third challenge for the Obama campaign is that the news cycle may be working against the President. At the Romney campaign, the plan has long been to fight Obama’s attacks on the failures of Bain Capital with the attacks on the failures of the U.S. economy over the last few years. In effect, the Romney campaign plans to make the coming election a war of attrition: If Obama uses unemployed people who lost their jobs after Bain Capital investments, Romney will use unemployed people who lost their jobs during the recession that has largely defined Obama’s time in office. Here is an example of that strategy, in an online spot from the Romney campaign.

It’s a strategy that depends heavily on circumstance. If the economy is growing and confidence is rising, Romney will be whistling in the wind. But if the economy is struggling, then Romney’s message is designed to ride the wave. In the last few weeks, the economy has begun to struggle again. Job growth has slowed. Renewed weakness has appeared in Europe and China. Economic confidence has stopped rising. After months of remarkable gains, global markets are once again teetering. In other words, at the moment he hopes to draw attention to his own message about Romney, Obama faces an environment that favors Romney’s message.

None of this inoculates Romney completely from Obama’s coming onslaught. But it also means that the Obama campaign still faces a difficult battle for the presidency. A New York Times/CBS News poll out Monday found President Obama trailing Romney by three points, 43%to 46%. (This represented a slight dip from last month, though the shift was well within the polls margin of error.) Textbook campaign politics may not be enough.

For those curious about comparisons between 2004 and 2008, an index of the ads that Bush and Kerry ran against each other can be found here.

MORE: Six Months Out, President Obama’s Campaign Still Faces Stiff Headwinds

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