Joe Biden isn’t known for his verbal precision, which is why it wasn’t a surprise to see him use this unfortunate language when it came to attacking Mitt Romney’s pledge to repeal Dodd-Frank:

“Romney wants to let the — he said the first 100 days — he’s gonna let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street,” Biden said at an event in Danville, Va. “They gonna put y’all back in chains.”

Because he was speaking to a mostly African American audience, it’s not unreasonable to read “chains” as a reference to slavery. But as soon as you give you give it a little more thought — not much, just a tiny bit — it’s clear it was a poorly-worded attempt to play on the GOP’s promise to “unshackle” the economy.

The Romney campaign immediately pounced on Biden’s statement. While campaigning in Ohio, Romney accused his opponent’s of engaging in “division and anger and hate.” On its face, this response seems over-the-top, but when you consider the broader context of the campaign, it makes perfect sense.

Because Mitt Romney is losing.

“If the election were held today,” writes former Romney advisor Steve Lombardo, “Obama would win.” After months of harsh attacks on his record and background, Mitt Romney has emerged with the lowest favorability ratings of any presidential candidate in twenty years. He has trailed in the large majority of head-to-head polls since winning the Republican presidential nomination, and he remains behind in every swing state. The Real Clear Politics average puts Obama up 3.5 points, and Nate Silver gives Romney a less than 30 percent chance of winning.

Obama’s approval rating isn’t great, but at an average of 48 percent, it’s in the “reelection range.” More importantly, as Lombardo shows, Obama has yet to hit 50 percent disapproval, and his approval rating has been on a slight upwards trajectory. It would be absurd to say that the election is over, but Romney has a lot of heavy lifting to do to win.

Paul Ryan was supposed to help, but early signs point to a small — or even nonexistent — bounce in the polls. By contrast, the median bump for a presidential candidate, after choosing a running mate, is 3 to 4 points. What’s more, Ryan introduces a huge new danger to Romney’s campaign; if Team Obama can successfully turn Ryan’s Medicare plan into a liability — and erode Romney’s advantage among seniors — then Romney is left without a clear path.

Romney began this week with a muddled message on Medicare and a nonsensical one on the Ryan budget. Because the public trusts Democrats on health care, any time Romney is talking about Medicare — and not the economy or jobs — he’s losing. Indeed, Ryan has made GOP elites nervous about Romney’s chances.

The campaign needed to focus attention elsewhere, and Joe Biden was a perfect target. This is another attempt to drag down Obama’s favorability by attacking him as a negative, divisive figure. The problem is that opinions of Obama are mostly locked in — Romney will have a hard time lowering the president’s standing with the public. Worse, Romney might find himself with an even lower favorability rating, as he relies on negative attacks, and shies away from defining himself.

All of this is to say that while the narrative of the election has changed with the Ryan pick, the status quo hasn’t. If Romney stays on this path, he’ll lose.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect. You can find his blog here.