WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s campaign so far is convincing a lot of independent voters that Mitt Romney is a cold-hearted, out-of-touch rich guy.
Obama’s engaging in an age-old election-year summer tradition – define your lesser-known opponent in as horrid a manner as possible. It usually works, staggering challengers such John Kerry in 2004 and Bob Dole in 1996. And it impacts the campaign narrative – instead of focusing on Obama’s stewardship of the struggling economy, Romney in recent days has had to battle accusations about his own record in business.
Romney vigorously disputes accusations that he misled people about when he really left investment firm Bain Capital, and independent fact-checkers have found the allegations have little merit. But Obama’s ability to raise doubts about Romney’s role at Bain have a larger goal: Taking Romney’s perceived strength – that his business record gives him the know-how to create jobs – and turning it into a weakness of big business and out-of-touch wealth.
Independent voters are notably wary of Romney. A July 9-10 Gallup poll found 19 percent were less likely to vote for the Republican presidential candidate because of his wealth. And that was before the torrent of ads and criticisms from Obama.
“Enough Americans generally and independents specifically say Romney’s wealth makes them less likely to vote for him that it could in theory make a difference at the margins in some key swing states,” a poll analysis found.
Romney pollster Neil Newhouse countered with surveys showing Romney and Obama still neck and neck even after a barrage of ads. “There is no evidence to suggest that the ballot has moved,” he said.
Still, the Obama campaign has been relentlessly reminding voters that though Romney says he left Bain in 1999, documents filed with government agencies suggest he had strong ties to the firm until 2002. Democrats have branded the furor “Romney’s Big Bain Lie” and suggested that if he misrepresented his role, it could be a felony. And if he were involved in Bain’s operations until 2002, new questions arise about the company’s role in firms that laid off workers or sent U.S. jobs abroad.
Romney has fought back hard, telling ABC News that Obama “sure as heck ought to say that he’s sorry for the kinds of attacks that are coming from his team." His campaign has run ads protesting the accusations and insisting that “there was ‘no evidence’ that Mitt Romney shipped jobs overseas.”
But here’s Romney’s problem: The Bain battle has dominated political talk, obliterating his efforts to talk about his economic remedies. And among some Republicans, it’s raised questions about the former Massachusetts governor’s ability to take a punch and control the campaign narrative against a master campaigner.
“You can’t run on biography anymore. That’s Mitt’s weakness, because the ads destroy biography,” Republican consultant Mike Murphy said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It going to come down to a jump ball of who’s got the better forward plan on the economy.”
“I’ll take Romney in that fight,” he added, “but the sooner it starts the better.”
Veteran Sacramento-based Republican consultant Sal Russo put the stakes more starkly: "This can be an important time if you mess things up.”
History shows such tactics can work. In the summer of 1996, President Bill Clinton ran ads tying Republican candidate Dole to the highly unpopular Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House of Representatives. Eight years later, "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" raised questions about Democratic presidential nominee Kerry’s Vietnam War service.
On Aug. 1, 2004, Kerry’s average lead over President George W. Bush in polls compiled by RealClearPolitics, a nonpartisan Website, was about 2 percentage points. The ads began running Aug. 5. On Aug. 26, Bush pulled ahead of Kerry and never relinquished the lead.
Whether the ads were solely responsible for Bush’s victory is a matter for debate, but the point was not lost on other campaigns: Tear down your opponent, early and often.
Traditionally, most voters make up their minds on a candidate well before the fall. In 2008, exit polls found 60 percent of all voters chose a candidate before September, and they went 52 percent to 47 percent for Obama, almost identical to his winning percentage.
Polls this year have barely moved in recent months, and roughly 10 percent of the electorate is considered undecided. But that’s a crucial chunk of voters, and Frank Newport, editor of the Gallup poll, said there are still three big pivotal events ahead that will sway them: Romney’s vice presidential pick, the party conventions and the debates.
But that’s for another day. Right now, the Obama campaign is building a narrative, keeping Romney on the defensive.
This is how it has to be, said California-based Democratic strategist Bob Mulholland. "You have to do this every day,” he said. “You know people are busy, but they may remember something, or follow it up later.”