Why Mitt Romney Can't Help But Flounder

Romney’s task for this summer was to reintroduce himself to the public as a competent moderate—someone who could get the economy back into shape by sheer dint of his business experience. But since Team Obama began its savage attacks on Bain Capital, the Romney campaign has been on the defensive. Revelations about Bain-led outsourcing, his “shadow years” at the company, and his opaque tax returns have wreaked havoc with his favorability ratings. Romney’s unfavorability is higher now than it’s been since the GOP primaries. Romney’s 40 percent favorability is the lowest mid-summer rating for a presidential nominee since 1948.

This, to put it lightly, is a big problem for Team Romney. Contrary to what the campaign seems to think, the economy isn’t bad enough to guarantee a defeat for President Obama. As Nate Cohn points out at The New Republic, Obama’s disapproval rating has hovered at 47 percent—the same as his approval rating. Americans are divided on the president’s tenure, but aren’t eager to throw him out of office. They also still like him, and see him as someone who looks out for their interests.

To solidify doubts about Obama and bring voters to his side, Romney needs to do more than just breathe—he has to offer a meaningful alternative. And to sell that alternative, he needs to paint a more positive picture of himself. But his campaign hasn’t done that; instead, it has focused on attacking Obama, which—because voters are firm in their opinions of the president—is a waste of money for everyone but the campaign’s consultants.

As for the attacks themselves? If, like a normal person, you haven’t been paying attention, it suffices to say that they have an unusual tone, given Romney’s position as the presumptive Republican nominee. Here are the most recent hits from Team Romney:

  • Taking Obama out of context with “You didn’t build that,” and hitting him for his supposed hostility to private business.
  • Accusing Obama of disadvantaging active duty soldiers in Ohio … by suing to extend early voting privileges for all Ohioans (early voting was previously reserved for soldiers).
  • Condemning the administration’s support for more flexible welfare work requirements as an attempt to end welfare work requirements altogether.

Romney’s message should be simple. “The economy is broken. Obama didn’t work. I can fix it.” But with the exception of “You didn’t build that,” none of these attacks are centered on the economy, or aimed at swing voters. Even the welfare attack, meant for working-class whites, is most likely to affect people who already lean to the GOP. If anything, these ads look like ones you would see in a party primary, and in particular, from a candidate who has to convince the base of his loyalty.

To wit, Romney's most recent ad hits Obama for the contraception mandate—which requires employers to drop extra charges for birth control—and presents it as an assault on religious freedom, because it doesn’t exempt state-supported Catholic hospitals. This appeals to conservatives, but I have my doubts about swing voters:

Two facts to keep in mind. First, women make up the bulk of undecided voters. Second, Obama is winning white women with four-year college degrees, who are a crucial bloc in swing states like Virginia, Florida, and Colorado. To win this election, Romney needs to run up the score among white voters—i.e., he has to win white women by a larger margin than previous Republicans. To do this, he needs to downplay the extent to which he’s opposed to expanding access to reproductive health care, including contraception.

(He also needs to downplay his characteristic hypocrisy—as governor of Massachusetts, he supported similar policies, and Romneycare subsidized birth control for low-income families.)

Women independents are already hostile to the GOP—in a survey released this summer, Emily’s List found that they scored Republicans low on “respecting women,” and remember the GOP’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. “The independent women we spoke to saw it as a priorities problem,” says Jess McIntosh, deputy communications director for the group, “Republicans are more focused on birth control and social issues than they are on creating jobs.”

An ad that focuses on contraception is not going to help Romney with women. It only appeals to the Republican base, and if Romney is still working on that, he has a problem. A presidential candidate who doesn’t have a unified base is a presidential candidate who can’t win—ask Jimmy Carter.

I expect to see more of this. Yesterday, a Romney spokesperson pushed back against an Obama ally by citing Romney’s health care law, which served as a template for the Affordable Care Act. This inspired howls from the conservative movement, which distrusts Romney and doubts his commitment to the cause. To fix this, Romney will have to keep pandering to conservatives—and turn further away from the center.

As has been the case since he stepped on the national stage, the former Massachusetts governor is stuck. If he tries to put on his moderate persona, he’s attacked by conservatives. And if he tries to assauge them, he looks less appealing to everyone else. Something will have to give, and he’s too risk-averse to challenge his base. Unfortunately for his campaign, Romney will not likely have a Sistah Souljah moment. But he needs one.

You may also like