CHICAGO — President Obama’s political advisers have long been preparing for a general-election contest against Republican Mitt Romney. What they have seen of the former Massachusetts governor in the past 30 days makes them think he will enter a fall campaign, if he survives a turbulent nomination battle, significantly weakened by self-inflicted wounds and a major strategic mistake.
That assessment in no way changes the view from the sixth floor of the Prudential Building here that the president faces major challenges in his bid for a second term. Continuing economic uncertainties, general unrest among the electorate, frustration with the pace of the recovery and the reluctance of independent voters to embrace the president constitute the stiff head winds that Obama and his team are facing.
The gap between what the president promised and the expectations he created in 2008 and his record of delivering will be at the heart of the Republican argument that he does not deserve a second term.
But the chaotic Republican race, and the way Romney has dealt with vulnerability and adversity, give those guiding the president’s reelection campaign confidence that, when the general-election campaign begins, the president will hold several advantages over the GOP nominee.
What has happened to Romney over the past month has not come as a total surprise to Obama’s advisers. Having long ago combed his record as a businessman and cast his profile against the general mood of the country, they thought he was a candidate with major weaknesses that could make it difficult for him to appeal to independent and swing voters.
At the heart of those perceptions is Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, a private equity firm where he made his fortune. His record there has come under attack in the Republican race, although his advisers say it is a major asset because of the contrast he could draw with the president, who has no real experience in business or with the private economy.
Obama advisers disagree. They argue that, at a time when many Americans see economic and political systems that appear to be stacked against them, Romney’s decision to base his campaign message on his work at a private equity firm could be a major mistake.
What Obama’s advisers say they did not anticipate was the degree to which Romney would compound that vulnerability through missteps.
“These are all self-inflicted,” said one adviser to the president who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the campaign candidly. “He has done as much damage to himself with how he’s handled this as anything his opponents have said about him. That’s why I think he’s made it worse.”
Questions have been raised about his personal finances, highlighted by the tax returns he released this week that show not only enormous wealth and a low effective tax rate but also a Swiss bank account (now closed) and investments in the Cayman Islands. Adding to those are statements Romney has made recently that ordinary Americans might interpret as a sign of insensitivity to their struggles.
“Large numbers of independent voters are free agents right now,” said David Axelrod, chief strategist for Obama’s campaign. “We are picking up with them. But as the Republican candidates drag themselves further and further to the right, in pursuit of the nomination, they’re absolutely blowing themselves up with independent voters, and you can see it in the numbers.”
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll highlights the damage Romney has sustained. By a margin of more than 2 to 1, independent voters have an unfavorable impression of the former governor. Two weeks ago, more independents had a favorable opinion of him than an unfavorable view. In contrast, 51 percent of independents have a favorable impression of the president, compared with 45 percent who have an unfavorable view — his highest rating since April.
As a candidate four years ago, Obama had self-inflicted wounds of his own — and vulnerabilities from his background and experience that caused him problems in his Democratic nomination campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton. He talked about Pennsylvania’s working-class voters “clinging” to guns and religion. He had to distance himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who officiated at his wedding. He struggled to win over white working-class voters.
But through those periods of adversity, Obama’s favorable ratings among independents never fell into negative territory. In April 2008, at the height of those controversies, 57 percent of independents said they had a favorable view of him.
“Our primary was enlarging for Obama, partly because he was running against a really, really tough, highly regarded candidate,” said another Obama adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain the campaign’s internal assessment of the race. “By dint of hanging in with her, he elevated himself. I don’t think these guys are elevating themselves right now.”
Republicans hope, and some Romney advisers believe, that the early Bain Capital attacks have worked in the candidate’s favor. If he wins the nomination, they argue, these issues will have been litigated thoroughly and will pose less of a danger for him in the general-election campaign.
Certainly Obama emerged from his campaign strengthened. The same could happen with Romney if he successfully fends off a challenge from former House speaker Newt Gingrich. But here in Chicago, the Obama team takes another view, which is that the damage is real and potentially long lasting, in part because it reinforces questions voters may already have had about Romney.
“I think it’s likely to stick because it isn’t an isolated episode,” the first adviser said. “It’s a pattern. At a certain point in the pattern, it gets ingrained.”
Obama still has much work to do with independents, regardless of the problems Romney may be having with them. That’s not lost on the president’s political and White House advisers. Their focus has never veered from that bloc of voters, even as they have been working to reenergize their own base, nor has their assessment of how competitive the general-election race will be altered in any fundamental way.
“I don’t think it changes us,” said another Obama adviser as he gauged the shape of the campaign. “We can’t get involved in this up-and-down everyday thing [of the Republican race]. We have to execute the plan we built to get to 270 electoral votes. We’ve had the same strategy the whole time and we’re going to execute our strategy.”
But there is no question that the tone of the Republican nomination battle, and the travails of Romney in particular, have proved to be a winter tonic for those around the president.