Mitt Romney's tax returns and his quit date Bain Capital were the big political stories for weeks, but now talk on that issue has gone silent. Did Romney manage to ride it out and deflect the damage? Or did President Obama fundamentally change how voters see him?The polling data on that question is mixed, but if you look at what Romney does, the answer is pretty clear.
On Mitt Romney's campaign website, there are at least 10 pages tagged "Bain Capitol," but zero pages tagged "Bain Capital" -- the way you actually spell the name of the firm where Romney made his fortune -- and, while people who blog in typo-strewn houses shouldn't throw dictionaries, it's telling that one of Romney's signature achievements is such a small part of his campaign that his aides haven't noticed the misspelling. He's been running for president for a year! If Romney were talking about one of his most important qualifications for the job more often, you'd think someone would have noticed.
Romney talked about his business experience a lot more in the few months after he announced he was running for president in June 2011. He considered his business experience such a winner that he promises to hire more people who had resumes like his. "In a Cabinet, I would hope that people had worked in the private sector for at least half of their careers," Romney said in New Hampshire on June 26, 2011. He talked about his business record with a selling point you don't hear as much anymore, that he was a turnaround artist. "When it gets all totaled up, on a net-net basis we helped create tens of thousands of jobs… We invested in some settings where businesses were heading down in a big way. Sometimes you have to carry out surgery to turn them around." Later, in September, Romney said, "what I do is what the country needs… I do turnarounds."
His 2010 book No Apology -- the kind of book people publish when they're about to run for president -- defended what Bain did in detail. "Creative destruction is unquestionably stressful - on workers, managers, owners, bankers, suppliers, customers, and the communities that surround the affected businesses," Romney says, but it makes society more innovative. What if we tried to save farm jobs by outlawing plows?
But Romney doesn't really talk about that these days. The most recent instance was when his wife told a North Carolina TV station last week that her husband is "a turnaround guy. He's turned around companies. He's turned around the Olympics. He turned around the state of Massachusetts." But there's a difference between having that case made by Ann Romney -- who as his spouse, is pretty unassailable -- and by Romney himself. Searching the campaign's press releases finds that every Bain-related email in the last few months has been a counter-attack to an Obama attack. ("THE BIG BAIN BACKFIRE" read one subject line on May 15.) In an ad released June 1, Romney says that Obama failed to launch an economic "turnaround," and explains his business experience in very vague terms: "I can tell you that my experience in the economy tells me how it is businesses make decisions to hire people in America. I want to use that knowledge to get Americans working again."
Perhaps that's only temporary. "Multiple sources say the campaign is looking at a stronger pushback on the Bain issue, although that’s something officials have telegraphed on and off since the primaries, and in the meantime, Boston has been largely silent in responding directly to the attacks," Politico's Maggie Haberman reports.
While they're figuring out a response to an attack first launched against Romney in 2002, there's some evidence Obama's attack ads are working. The picture is somewhat mixed. A USA Today/ Gallup poll released Tuesday finds that by 63 percent to 29 percent, Americans think Romney's work at Bain would help him make good decisions in steering the nation's economy. But that's the only bright polling spot for Romney on the issue:
- A June 27 Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll found that Obama had a bigger lead in swing states than nationally, and that swing state voters saw his business career more negatively. Those voters had been subject to millions of dollars in Bain ads.
- A July 10 ABC News/ Washington Post poll had a similar finding.
- A July 24 Reuters/ Ipsos poll found that by 36 percent to 18 percent, registered voters said Bain made them see Romney less favorably. Three-quarters of them were familiar the Bain attacks.
But here's the most telling bit of data of all. An ad rating project from Vanderbilt University and YouGov reviewed how true swing voters are affected by campaign ads. The New Republic's Alec MacGillis reports that researchers found Obama can't make more people love him, but they can make more people hate Romney.
Among this sample, Romney generally holds a roughly 15 point edge. This edge moves up slightly among voters who have viewed a positive Romney ad or a Romney ad attacking Obama, and it drops slightly among those who’ve seen a positive Obama ad. But this edge drops sharply, to only three points, among voters who have seen an Obama ad attacking Romney. And most effective of all, the researchers found, was Obama’s "America the Beautiful" ad.
That's the one where Romney warbles the patriotic tune while headlines flash about his offshore accounts and outsourcing done by companies Bain invested in. "Mitt Romney's not the solution," the ad says. "He's the problem." While Romney doesn't talk much about being a turnaround artist anymore, Obama has figured out how to convince people that he turned things around, but in the wrong direction.