Much of President Obama campaign strategy — maybe all of it — has been an effort to paint Mitt Romney as a fat cat, weird and out-of-touch. In other words, Obama figures by making Romney unlikable the president can get reelected. But what if voters don’t need to like Romney to vote for him?
That, at least for now, seems to be the case. And it is greatly upsetting, naturally, to the left. Take the latest New York Times-CBS poll:
With less than seven months before Election Day, a furious scramble is under way by Democrats to define their opponent. Mr. Romney’s bruises from the Republican primary fight are evident — only 29 percent of voters have a favorable view of him — but more than one-third say they have yet to form an opinion, creating a chance for him to introduce himself as a fix-it man who can improve the economic circumstances of Americans. . . .
Mr. Romney’s wealth also creates an uneasy relationship with many voters. Only about one in seven voters say he cares a lot about the needs and problems of people like them, compared with one-third of voters who think Mr. Obama cares a lot about their needs and problems. Only one-third of voters say they can relate to Mr. Romney, while nearly half say they can relate to Mr. Obama.
But with all that, this same poll has the race tied. The Times would dearly love its readers to know that “Democrats have put a particular focus on Mr. Romney’s wealth, and this could already be influencing some voters.” But in fact, the data suggest that either Obama’s performance is so objectionable voters will vote for anyone minimally acceptable or that they have separated likability from voting preference. In short, Obama must be a heck of a weak incumbent to be tied with an opponent whose unfavorables are as high as Romney’s.
Romney can read the polls too, and these data, I suspect, are why Romney says Obama is “a nice guy” but in over his head or not living up to his promises or just plain doing a bad job. He is in essence telling voters: “It’s okay to like him, just don’t vote for him.” And so far a chunk of the electorate is taking him up on his invitation.
There is another defect in Obama’s negativity onslaught. The voters don’t much care what he is talking about. The report, six paragraphs from the end, lets us know: “The first week of the head-to-head campaign between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney has been dominated by a debate about the role of women and working mothers, after primary fights over insurance coverage for contraception and other women’s health issues. The survey found that voters do not place a priority on some of these issues when choosing a candidate, focusing instead on jobs and the economy.”Oops. That’s a lot of wasted effort.
In fact, this phenomenon — Romney does better in polling than his favorable/unfavorable ratings suggest — is not limited to a single poll. For example, the Post-ABC poll has Romney trailing Obama by seven points; Romney is upside-down in favorability with 35 to 47 percent split. In the latest Quinnipiac poll Obama leads by four points, although 81 percent consider him likable as opposed to 63 who think that way about Romney.
The danger for Obama in pursuing the smear-Romney strategy is threefold: Voters may not care; Romney’s favorables have improved (showing he is potential more likable than Obama thinks); and the whole endeavor may make Obama look less presidential and more desperate. Too bad he doesn’t have a positive agenda or record of accomplishment to fall back on.