No One Actually Knows if the Bain Attacks Are Working

If the latest poll from Gallup and USA Today tells us anything, it’s that for many Americans, Mitt Romney is—on the face of things—a plausible alternative to President Obama. 63 percent of respondents said that Romney’s business background, including his tenure at Bain Capital, would lead him to make good decisions in dealing with the nation’s economic problems—only 29 percent disagreed. As for an overall assessment of the Republican nominee, 54 percent say that he has the personality and leadership qualities a person needs to be president, compared to 57 percent for Obama.

USA Today’s Susan Page suggests that this is a sign the Bain attacks aren’t working: “The findings raise questions about Obama’s strategy of targeting Bain’s record in outsourcing jobs and hammering Romney for refusing to commit to releasing more than two years of his tax returns.”

Of course, you have to consider this poll along with others that posed similar questions. In a survey released today by Reuters, 36 percent of respondents said that Bain made them see Romney less favorably, compared to 18 percent who said it increased their ratings. What’s more, among registered voters, 37 percent said that the revelations about Romney’s taxes had left them with a less favorable impression of the former Massachusetts governor. Fifty-four percent of independents saw Romney’s taxes as an important issue in the election, which suggests real traction for the Obama campaign’s message.

Recent polls also show the Bain attacks working in particular states, like Ohio. The New Republic’s Nate Cohn notes that “in polls conducted since late June, Obama improved by an average of net–3.5 percentage points over his prior margin.” Even without evidence of a causal relationship, there’s a strong chance that the attacks on Bain Capital had something to do with this movement, especially given the degree to which they are aimed at working-class whites in states like Ohio.

Right now, the most you can say about the impact of Bain is that it's inconclusive. Existing evidence pulls in both directions, and it will take time before we know how voters have responded to the attacks. At this point, only a small portion of voters are paying attention to the election—according to the latest poll from the New York Times and CBS News, only 38 percent of those surveyed are paying “some” attention to the race, while another 14 percent are paying “not much.” It’s only when most voters are paying attention to the election, and the campaign ads, that we’ll see movement.

It should also be said that there is still more to come from the Obama campaign. The Bain attacks are only the beginning of a broader assault on Romney’s platform and (stated) beliefs. Ultimately, the effectiveness of that will matter much more than what voters think about Romney’s private equity career.