What's Next for Mitt?

At The Washington Post, Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake write a bit more about the planned advertising blitz by Republican Super PAC American Crossroads:

The Crossroads ads, which began airing in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia and attack the incumbent for his handling of gas prices, are the first of what is expected to be an extended air assault on Obama by the conservative group.

“We think it’s important to be a counterweight to President Obama’s bully pulpit and hold him accountable for the policy choices he’s made and the results he’s failed to deliver,” said Steven Law, the executive director of American Crossroads. “Obama is putting the full muscle of the White House into changing the subject from his track record to a new, bleak vision of America — and we aim to keep the focus of the debate where it belongs.”

Like I said a few days ago, I’m not sure that these will have much effect; opinions on Obama are mostly set in stone, and a few million dollars in advertising won’t change that.

That said, this gets to the core dilemma faced by the Romney team, now that they’ve made it through the Republican primaries. On one hand, Romney needs to improve his standing with the public; in his four-month battle for delegates, the former Massachusetts governor has managed to alienate women, Latinos, and independent voters, among others. He’s one of the most unpopular presidential candidates in recent memory, and there’s no guarantee that—like Bill Clinton—he’ll recover in time for the general election. Absent an abrupt change in external conditions, it’s just as likely that he remains unpopular through the year. Given the degree to which he’ll have plenty of cover from groups like American Crossroads, it seems like he should devote the next four months—until the convention—to showing the human side of his personality.

On the other hand, President Obama is steadily gaining ground with the public. Voters are receptive to his combative populism, and his approval ratings have been on the upswing since the beginning of the year. If the economy continues to grow, and the job market continues to improve, Obama will be in good shape for re-election. It might be difficult to bring down the president’s favorability—he’s a known quantity, and besides, there’s no better megaphone than the Oval Office—but if you’re a challenger, it doesn’t hurt.

On the former, Romney could emphasize his genuinely moderate record on reproductive health as governor of Massachusetts and back away from some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of his primary campaign. The risk, of course, is that he alienates conservative voters, who support Romney but don’t trust him as a standard-bearer for right-wing policies. Given the degree to which he needs to capture hearts and minds within the Republican Party, the incentive is strong for him to stay away from his past moderation. As such, he doesn’t have much room to get around his unpopularity with key groups of voters.

This suggests that he should turn his attention to President Obama. Even still, there are risks. A significant part of Romney’s unpopularity has everything to do with his intensely negative campaign for the nomination, which relied on harsh attack ads to sway voters away from his opponents. A similarly negative advertising blitz against President Obama will entrench the idea that Romney has nothing but criticism to offer to the public, and diminish his favorables. It’s counterproductive, to say the least.

So where does Mitt Romney go from here? If I were advising his campaign (or American Crossroads, for that matter), I would strongly encourage the former governor to spend time on himself. He can attack Obama in the fall; for now, he should build himself up as someone the public can trust, while keeping his focus on the economy. This election will hinge on the direction of the economy, and for now, the best Romney can do is build a brand around competence and economic optimism.