Will Bain Actually Matter for November?

Over the last week, Mitt Romney has struggled to deal with revelations over his tenure at Bain Capital and the extent of his involvement in the company from 1999 to 2002. He insists he retired in 1999—and thus is not responsible for Bain’s conduct afterward—despite the fact that documents from a variety of sources show Romney as the owner, CEO, and sole shareholder; he continued to sign documents, and may have had a small role in managing the firm. The Obama campaign has had a field day, hitting Romney for his evasiveness and even going as far as to suggest the Republican nominee broke the law. This provoked angry demands for an apology from the Romney team, which in turn, prompted this response from Obama for America.

This easily ranks as the most brutal ad to appear in the 2012 election campaign—it’s likely the closest Barack Obama will get to simply slapping Mitt Romney in the face.

But for as much as Romney is flailing to explain his contradictory statements, and for as much as this has been a terrible week for his campaign, it’s hard to say if this will influence voters in the fall. It’s clear that both campaigns see this story as critical, but there’s not much evidence to go either way. After all, this isn’t an easy story to explain to voters. It requires knowledge of Romney’s career, of Bain’s activities, of multiple documents, and competing narratives.

Even the Obama campaign has to resort to distortions; in this ad—and others—it makes the unsubstantiated claim that Romney personally outsourced jobs to other countries. Given the degree to which Romney is Bain (and Bain is Romney), you could lay moral responsibility on the Republican nominee, but anything more than that is conjecture. Moreover, neither President Obama nor the Democratic Party are opposed to outsourcing, which makes the attack seem self-serving and unfair.

Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, is skeptical that these attacks will have any effect on how voters choose in November. “In my view,” he said, “the reaction to the Bain story will break down largely along partisan lines, with Democrats accepting the outsourcing meme and Republicans buying Romney’s argument that he was CEO in name only after leaving for the Olympics.”

The important thing to remember is the electorate is highly polarized, and most voters have already made their choice. Dickinson explains, “Keep in mind that 70 percent or so of voters have already made up their mind regarding who they will support, and most people, including independents, aren’t paying much attention to this story anyway.”

With that said, there is a small but significant portion of the electorate that’s undecided, has low information, and is more likely to be influenced by the campaigns. The attack on Bain Capital—and in particular, the perception that Romney is hiding something—could serve to cement negative perceptions of the candidate. It’s not that voters will necessarily understand the substance of the Bain Capital attacks, but they will begin to perceive Romney as an unscrupulous banker who evades responsibility and abuses the rules—a picture that reminds voters of the 2007-2008 financial crisis and fits well with the rhetoric used by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

What’s more, if the Obama campaign wants to bring policy issues into the discussion, Bain can serve as a brush to help illustrate the policies pushed by Mitt Romney. Paul Krugman made this point over the weekend, and it’s worth repeating:

By all means, run on the real issues — but do so by creating a narrative, a pattern that registers with the public.

And Romney’s biography offers a golden opportunity to do just that. His policy proposals amount to a radical redistribution of income away from the middle class to the very rich; he’s also being highly dishonest about budgets and just about everything else. How to make those true facts credible? By associating them with his business career, which involved a lot of profiting by laying off workers and/or taking away their benefits; his personal finances, which involved so much tax avoidance that he’s afraid to let us see his returns before 2010; his shiftiness over when exactly he left Bain.

I’ve written a lot about how Obama’s re-election depends on whether he can keep Romney from consolidating a critical mass of white voters, in particular, winning a large majority of white working-class voters. If the Bain narrative gains traction—and judging from the huge number of views on the Obama ad, it is—and if the Obama campaign can tie it to a broader critique of Romney’s policies, then they may keep Republicans from reaching the necessary amount of white support.

Even still, it’s important to remember the extent to which this—undecided working-class white voters—is a narrow slice of the electorate. If a majority of Americans have already decided to vote against Barack Obama, there’s not much the campaign can do to change that.