The latter presumption proved wrong, but what about the other one: that this is a fatal flaw in Patrick’s candidacy?
We can say two things: One is that this issue is probably more harmful for Patrick in the Democratic primary than it would be in the general election. The Democratic Party in particular has moved in an anti-corporate direction in recent years, as evidenced by the rise of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). That movement appears to have played a part in drawing the late entries of Patrick and possibly Mike Bloomberg, who very much come from the business-friendly side of the party.
The second, though, is that it’s too tempting to assume this played a major role in costing Romney the 2012 presidential race. Some polls suggest it was more of a liability than an asset, but others suggested voters liked the idea of an accomplished business executive running the economy. It will be up to Patrick to accentuate to Democrats his leadership qualities and potential electability in the general election, while avoiding being dismissed by them as a “corporate raider,” as Romney was labeled.
A poll from Bloomberg News in March 2012 asked Americans, “Do you think private equity practices, which include investing money to take over companies with a plan to sell them later, are mostly good or mostly bad for the economy?” By almost a 2-to-1 margin (52 percent to 27 percent), Americans said private equity was “mostly bad” rather than “mostly good.”
A June 2012 Purple Strategies poll in four key swing states found that in three of the four states, more voters said private equity “hurts workers” than said it “helps [the] economy.”
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll around the same time showed voters nationally were pretty split on whether Romney’s history of “managing a firm that specializes in buying, restructuring and selling companies” made them view him more positively or negatively. But in swing states, it was viewed nearly 2-to-1 as a negative (33 percent to 18 percent).
But as the race wore on, it wasn’t so clear it was hurting Romney so much. A USA Today/Gallup poll showed voters said more than 2-to-1 (63 percent to 29 percent) that Romney’s experience in business — including at Bain — would cause him to make good decisions rather than bad ones as president.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in July of that year showed Americans saw Bain as a major negative rather than a major positive for Romney by a 2-to-1 margin (32 percent to 16 percent), but by September it was an even split: 27 percent viewing it strongly positively and 28 percent strongly negatively.
The more immediate question for Patrick is how this plays among Democratic voters. Perhaps not surprisingly, those voters viewed Romney’s time at Bain much more negatively than the broader electorate. The Post-ABC poll showed 43 percent of Democrats thought Romney’s time “buying and restructuring companies” was a major reason to oppose him, while just 10 percent thought it was a major reason to support him. Democrats also said Romney as a business executive had done more to cut jobs (76 percent) than to create them (9 percent).
Those responses, though, are undoubtedly colored by partisanship. Democrats didn’t like Romney; he was seeking to deny Barack Obama, whom they did like very much, a second term. So they were liable to find any reason to oppose him. His work as an allegedly ruthless business executive was perhaps the most obvious attack line for Democrats, and their voters absorbed it.
But despite that campaign, which even Romney’s GOP primary opponents dabbled in, fewer than half of Democrats declared it to be a major reason to vote against Romney in their eyes. That suggests there could be plenty of Democratic primary voters for whom this issue won’t be a dealbreaker. In fact, these polls suggest Patrick’s work at Bain could be spun into something that isn’t quite the liability Bain was assumed to be for Romney.
Even if Democrats don’t necessarily hate him for it, though, it doesn’t mean they will find a way to love him. In a party where candidates pushing messages of corporate greed and wealth taxes are on the rise, Patrick’s campaign will have to navigate a different path. In his first interview as a candidate Thursday morning, he said he’d be okay with a wealth tax but also that “I don’t think that wealth is the problem; I think greed is the problem.”
That’ll be a fine line to walk. And you can bet the moment he shows signs of threatening the anti-corporate candidates, they’ll make Bain a mainstay of the campaign. At the very least, Patrick’s late entry combined with Bloomberg’s potential one could provide an inflection point for how far the Democratic Party is going to distance itself from big business.