Voters Have Changed Their Mind about Romney—for the Worse

Methodologically, it doesn’t make much sense to do a poll of just the swing states. In presidential elections, the country moves as a whole; if President Barack Obama gains support nationally, then it will be reflected in individual states. Yes, some states will show more movement than others (Nate Silver calls these “elastic”), but there’s no real reason to focus exclusively on swing states, since you can predict the change with national polling. At most, it furthers the common but misguided notion that the election comprises 50 individual contests.

Of course, we can still glean useful information from swing-state polls. The most recent, from USA Today and Gallup, has a good amount of useful information. Focusing on the barrage of TV ads in swing states, USA Today and Gallup found that of the overwhelming majority of voters in those states who saw campaign ads, about 1 in 12 said that it changed their minds. And of those 1 in 12, 76 percent say they now support President Obama, compared with the 16 percent who now favor Mitt Romney. This isn’t a huge number, but in a close contest, these marginal effects could determine the election.

But it’s important to emphasize that voter opinions haven’t actually budged. Together, since the start of the general election, the two sides have spent more than $195 million on ads. Despite this, perceptions are still where they were two months ago; in the first Gallup swing state poll taken after Romney won the Republican presidential nomination, he trailed Obama, 45 to 47. Today, Obama still takes 47 percent support in swing states (compared to 48 percent nationally), and Romney still takes 45 percent (compared to 44 percent nationally).

That’s not to say that Romney is safe, as his pollster Neil Newhouse admits to Gallup. “It is expected to find that more voters say their views have changed about Mitt Romney; they simply don’t know him all that well,” he says. “On the other hand, there are few voters who are going to say their views have changed about President Obama. They know him pretty damned well.” According to The New York Times, the Romney team is planning a massive advertising blitz in the fall; it intends to “aggressively” portray the president as a “craven political figure” in order to capitalize on disenchantment with the polarization of his tenure. But if Newhouse is right—and I think he is—this is wasted money; voters already know what they think about Barack Obama, and millions in advertising won’t change that.

By contrast, as Newhouse notes, the public has yet to settle on an image of Mitt Romney. The Romney team’s resources would be better spent on a campaign to define the GOP nominee for the public, in the most positive terms possible. As it stands, the Obama campaign has had a virtual monopoly on depictions of Romney, and it’s having an effect; the relentless attacks on Bain—soon to be joined by attacks on Romney’s offshore accounts—have caused Romney’s support to collapse in critical states like Florida and Ohio. In Florida, Romney’s favorability among white working-class voters—the main targets of the attack on Bain Capital—has dropped by a net 15 points in polling by Quinnipiac University. Likewise, in an Ohio poll by Purple Strategies, 49 percent of those surveyed said private-equity companies put profits over workers, compared with 33 percent who said private equity “helps” the economy.

It’s a little too early to say if Romney is in trouble with the attacks on Bain Capital, offshore accounts, and his persona as a business leader. We’ll know for sure in the fall, when the post-convention bounce subsides, and opinions begin to harden. But these results don’t bode well for the Republican nominee. Despite its complete predictability, the Romney team seems unprepared for the attack on Bain. Democrats are defining their candidate for them, and if they fail to offer an effective response, they’ll find themselves fighting to persuade a suspicious electorate. You can overcome this—John Kerry came close in 2004—but in an otherwise favorable climate, it’s the worst of all worlds.