Matthew Dowd wrote the other day that Mitt Romney’s main challenge in this week’s debate is to establish the three Cs: Competence, compassion, and connection. Romney needs to reverse public perceptions of himself as completely disconnected from, and even disdainful towards, the economic experiences of working and middle class Americans — an image he played to perfection on the videotape capturing his remarks about the freeloading 47 percent.
But this isn't just about Romney’s personal image as an arrogant plutocrat. It’s also about what people believe about Romney’s policy proposals and the views and priorities that drive them. The 47 percent tape is devastating because it reinforces people’s beliefs about whose interests a Romney presidency would really protect.
If Romney is going to change those perceptions during the debates, the new Post/ABC News poll suggests he faces some serious challenges.
Obama still holds an overwhelming advantage on who understands people’s economic problems, 52-39. Sixty-six percent say Obama does more to favor the middle class than the wealthy, while 57 percent say Romney would do more to favor the rich. Only 35 percent say Romney would favor the middle class.
On some of the big debates about economic and tax fairness and the proper role of government that have animated this campaign, Obama seems to have an edge. A majority, 57 percent, thinks the gap between the rich and everyone else has grown larger. A majority believes the federal government should pursue policies to reduce that gap, 52-43. A majority says it’s fair that some people don’t pay federal income taxes, 57-39. A plurality says economic unfairness is a bigger problem than overregulation, 49-42. (Romney wins on dependency, however; 51 percent say government programs make people dependent.)
Meanwhile, in a key finding, Gallup notes that more think middle income Americans will be better off in four years if Obama is reelected than if Romney becomes president, 53-43. All of this suggests the 47 percent remarks — which are airing in a brutal Obama ad in the swing states — continue to take their toll on Romney.
“The thing that people are always inclined to believe about him is that his economic policies will help the wealthy get richer,” Geoff Garin, the pollster for the Obama-allied Priorities USA, told me the other day. “The 47 percent comment falls much more in the category of confirmation rather than revelation.”
There will be a lot of chatter about the two candidates’ tone and style (Was Obama too aloof? Did Romney attack too harshly?) or whether Romney had a “game changer.” The Romney camp is apparently obsessed with the idea that he needs big “moments,” and to that end, Romney has been practicing his “zingers” for over a month now. But the real game changer Romney needs is to reverse perceptions of what his policies would mean to ordinary Americans.
( Update: I should add that this might prove to be pretty difficult. It would require Romney to get more specific about his own prescriptions, and it's not clear he can do that because it risks reminding people that he’d largely represent a return to Bush economics.)
* Romney’s strategic conundrum at the debate: As E.J. Dionne notes, Romney’s number one goal is to change perceptions of himself, but that could have a downside:
On the one hand, he has to use it to change his image, particularly among women and the blue-collar white voters he needs to counter Obama’s overwhelming margins among African-Americans and Latinos. This sort of repair work takes debate time and energy away from Romney’s primary task, which is to put Obama on his heels about his record.
* Tight race nationally, but Obama leads in swing states: Turning to the horserace numbers in the Post poll: It shows the race is tight among likely voters nationally, at 49-47. But in the swing states, Obama’s lead is far larger, at 52-41. A majority says Obama will win the election, and National Journal’s Steven Shepard notes: “the leader on this measure has gone on to win every election since 1984.”
Nate Cohn cautions against reading too much into differences between national and swing state polls. He puts the Post poll in context and finds that the big picture remains unchanged: Obama holds a “modest” lead nationally and in the swing states.
* Romney’s advantage on economy is gone: The poll finds the two men exactly tied on who would do a better job handling the economy, at 47-47, making this only the latest of many national polls finding that Romney’s advantage on the issue has evaporated. One reason this is significant: Romney has a huge ad buy in the swing states painting a dire picture of the Obama economy and vowing to do better as president.
Two good findings on the economy for Romney: Only a small majority say the stimulus helped the economy, and more say they are confident the country will get back on track in the next two years if Romney is elected, 51-47. Meanwhile, Obama leads on nearly every major issue, from health care to Medicare to international affairs.
* Romney campaigns against Obamacare in Virginia: The Romney campaign is blitzing Virginia with mailers that are focused on Obamacare, casting it as a job killer and vowing Romney will move to “repeal and replace” the law on day one of his presidency. Despite the “replacement” solutions detailed in the mailer, Romney has refused to say what he would do, if anything, for the millions of Americans with preexisting conditions who would lose protection, only saying he’d do something or other for those with continuous coverage.
* Axelrod says election is still close: David Axelrod warns Dems against overconfidence:
“There can be an inflated sense of confidence that has an impact on turnout. People think the election’s done. Well, it’s not. It’s going to be a close election. You don’t want people to be irrationally exuberant.”
My sense is that the Obama team is cautiously confident, but thinks this race is far from over.
* Election is a referendum on the safety net: Paul Krugman on the real meaning of an Obama victory:
Voters are, in effect, being asked to deliver a verdict on the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, on Social Security, Medicare and, yes, Obamacare, which represents an extension of that legacy...If the polls are any indication, the result of that referendum will be a clear reassertion of support for the safety net, and a clear rejection of politicians who want to return us to the Gilded Age.
Romney will try to make the closing days of the campaign a referendum on the Obama economy, but Obama can make the above the basis for a strong closing argument of his own.
* The latest on the “you didn’t build that” attack: The aforementioned Gallup poll finds that the two men are tied, 47-47, on whose policies would make small business owners better off in four years. Can we say the “you didn’t build that” attack was a bust yet?
* Republicans worry Romney can’t make his case: Niall Stanage reports that increasing numbers of Republican strategists are worried that Romney doesn’t have the chops to prosecute the case against the Obama economy effectively. What about making an effective case for what Romney would do to improve people’s lives?
* Elizabeth Warren: It’s about which party controls the Senate: As Luke Johnson reports, Elizabeth Warren is making her candidacy more and more about which party will control the Senate next year, rather than just about Scott Brown’s own votes. Warren needs to prevent Brown from winning crossover voters — who support Obama but like Brown — so it makes sense for her to emphasize that a vote for Brown is not just a vote for the likable Senator; it’s a vote against Obama’s agenda.
* Warren leads Brown in new poll: The new Boston Globe poll puts her ahead, at 43-38 — the sixth of eight polls to show her ahead. “It’s trending away from Brown,’’ says the Globe’s pollster. “Brown right now is not doing well enough among Democrats to offset the advantage that Warren has.”
But 18 percent remain undecided — the vast majority of them probably Obama voters, which explains her emphasis on Senate control.
* And Dems use Todd Akin in House race: This appears to be the first ad that uses Todd Akin against a House Republican: The new spot from Dem Dan Maffei hits Rep. Ann Marie Beurkle of New York’s 24th district for co-sponsoring that now-notorious bill with Akin that includes a “forcible rape” exception for abortion. And the Akin gift keeps on giving...