Are the Bain Attacks Working?

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All summer, Barack Obama has blanketed the swing-state airwaves in an attempt to sway the sliver of the electorate still up for grabs. The ad assault has attacked a series of related issues: Mitt Romney’s refusal to release additional tax returns, his offshore bank accounts, his former firm’s record of outsourcing jobs abroad and laying off workers at home. But they all fall under a single theme: the presumptive Republican nominee is an impossibly rich man whose decisions will benefit his own kind, not the middle class. So has the offensive worked?

It’s not a satisfying answer, but … yes and no. The presidential horse race remains relatively static. Embedded in the polling, however, are signs that the attacks have inflicted a toll on Romney’s standing with voters. At the same time, the Republican maintains a significant edge on the economy, which most observers expect will be the defining issue of the campaign.

First, the damage. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll illustrates how the broadsides have blunted Romney’s appeal to voters. Four in 10 respondents say they have an unfavorable impression of the presumptive Republican nominee, compared with 35% who feel favorably — an ignominious distinction that none of the previous three Republican nominees have shared. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll out this week, 36% of registered voters say Bain’s outsourcing record has tarnished Romney’s appeal. Roughly the same number say they view the former Massachusetts governor less favorably because of what they have heard about his tax returns. A similar survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, found that 40% of respondents, including 47% of self-described moderates, said Romney’s work at Bain Capital made it less likely he would receive their vote.

And yet the Democratic attacks haven’t shaken the foundation of Romney’s campaign, which is that he is the candidate better equipped to resuscitate the economy. The NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found that voters think Romney has better ideas for improving the economy by a 7-point margin, 43% to 36%. In a USA Today/Gallup poll released this week, 63% of respondents said Romney’s business experience — which the Chicago re-elect team has sought to highlight as proof he won’t represent middle-class interests — is an asset when it comes to making sound economic decisions.

Out of the reams of data, I pluck these specific numbers for a reason. Facing economic headwinds that seem unlikely to shift much before November, Obama’s best path to victory is to invalidate his opponent’s credentials — to make the race “a choice,” as he likes to say, rather than a referendum. As many have observed, the best recent analog to the strategy is George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign against John Kerry: the embattled incumbent, at a disadvantage on the election’s keystone issue (in that case, the Iraq war), tries to raise questions about his opponent’s character. So it’s significant that Obama has chipped away at Romney’s likability and opened a 2-to-1 edge, according to the USA Today/Gallup survey. As Jamelle Bouie writes, the Swift Boat attacks didn’t sink Kerry all at once; it took four months until the Democrat’s campaign began taking on water in earnest. The Bain attacks may be following a similar trend line.

By the same token, the Romney campaign must be heartened that despite the fusillade, it has an advantage on the election’s central issue. Apart from outlier polls, “there has been no statistically significant movement in Romney’s support during the past three months,” as William Galston argues. Thus far, super PACs have kept Romney afloat; while combined Republican spending exceeds the Obama campaign’s tally, Romney has yet to mount a real aerial attack of his own. The Republicans’ cash advantage will surely widen in the coming months. Which means the present deadlock is not a bad place for the challenger to be.

To some degree, the tangled polling makes sense. It’s reasonable for undecided voters in Northern Virginia, forced to watch Obama’s ads at every commercial break, to conclude both that they don’t particularly like the Republican nominee and that his economic acumen tops the President’s. The Bain attacks aren’t really a bid to undermine Romney’s business credentials. Rather, they are a way to accentuate them, in the hope that fence sitters conclude Romney has used that wherewithal to advance his own interests and would do the same if he were put in charge of the country’s.