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.