Mitt Romney’s team has a more-than-plausible theory about how to win the presidential election in a time of economic duress. The key question is whether that theory can survive the summer storm that threatens to envelop the Republican’s candidacy.
Romney’s operation is under a relentless and carefully choreographed assault from President Obama’s campaign, which has used the new media environment to feed and amplify a negative advertising effort that has cost tens of millions of dollars.
Whatever obstacles Romney faced from his rivals in his long battle in the primaries, nothing compares with the tenacity of the president’s Chicago-based operation.
As a result, Obama’s team has been controlling the campaign debate. A few weeks ago, it was about Bain Capital’s role in shipping jobs overseas. Last week, it was about the terms and timing of when Romney left the private-equity firm. This week, it’s whether Romney will be forced to release more tax returns than he has said he would. Next week could be something else.
Romney’s campaign officials are looking for ways to respond to the Obama attacks more effectively and turn the fire back on the president. They haven’t had much luck. They must reassure themselves and their fellow Republicans that whatever damage they are sustaining can be reversed with a strong national convention, a solid vice presidential pick, the fall debates and a focus on the president’s economic record.
This may represent one of the great gambles in presidential politics. Romney’s Boston-based team projects confidence in its theory of the contest — that the outcome will turn on the economy and judgments about the president’s handling of it and not on the issues being discussed now. Its view was summed up by one of Romney’s senior advisers: If the campaign has to hit a rough patch, better it happen in July than October.
But many Republicans are nervous. They fear the ground could be shifting. They wonder why the Romney campaign seemed ill-prepared for the attacks on Bain. They wish Romney would shut down questions about his tax returns by turning over more years than just 2010 and 2011 (which are not yet done). Some are saying this publicly. Others, Romney advisers say, are offering plenty of private and unsolicited advice to Boston as well.
Romney’s team sought to calm Republicans (and change the media narrative) by issuing a memo from campaign pollster Neil Newhouse that said Obama’s attacks have done little or nothing to change the overall polls, which continue to show an extremely close race. That may be the only thing the two sides agree on right now.
Senior advisers to Obama and Romney say the electorate is so closely divided, with so few truly undecided voters, that the surveys will not move dramatically between now and Election Day. Beyond that, there is a huge difference in how advisers to the two see the contest developing and, therefore, the significance of what is happening in what normally is a relatively calm season in presidential campaigns.
“I don’t anticipate seeing any big movement or that we’re going to bust something open,” said one of Obama’s top advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. But, he added, “we have challenged the central premise of his candidacy, and it’s going to make it a lot harder for him to grow. In that sense, I think it’s been very effective.”
Joel Benenson, the Obama campaign’s pollster, told reporters at a Bloomberg News breakfast Wednesday that even if the surveys haven’t shifted significantly, the attacks are undermining Romney’s character and image among swing-state voters. “I think it’s durable,” he said.
In Boston, Romney advisers think things are not that dire, although some acknowledge that the attacks have inflicted some damage. They believe that Obama’s team is throwing everything possible at Romney in an effort to kill off his candidacy before the conventions, knowing that the longer he remains viable, the more difficult it will be for the president to win reelection.
“There’s a giant riptide that’s pulling Obama out and it’s the economy,” said one of Romney’s advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. “Until they address the riptide, they’ll continue to get sucked out.”
Obama managed to pivot away from a third consecutive tepid jobs report by ramping up calls for Romney to release more tax returns — drawing the attention of the media from what could have been more days of focus on the president’s record.
That frustrates Romney’s advisers. But they think the Obama attacks have not moved the polls because widespread economic dissatisfaction is a weight that prevents Obama from gaining ground even when his campaign is on the offensive.
If Romney can weather the storm, it may be because voters are not focused on the same issues that occupy cable news talking heads and others in the media and blog community. “We believe — and I think it has the benefit of being true — that this is an election that’s going to be decided on bigger issues,” another senior Romney adviser said. “The country faces some really serious problems. . . . We’re in trouble, and ultimately this election is going to turn on those issues, not on the small stuff.”
Never has a presidential campaign seen such intense and negative engagement and such a high volume of advertising at this stage. Obama’s team says Romney set the tone for all this by the way he destroyed his Republican rivals during the primaries. Romney’s team argues that the president has surrendered the moral high ground with his campaign’s tactics and that he will pay a high price for it.
Both sides anticipate more of the same in the coming months. “We’re going to continue to draw distinctions and drive the choice,” a senior Obama official said. “This is a tough battle and a consequential one.” A Romney adviser countered by saying, “They’re running this scorched-earth, everything’s fair, no-whining campaign. Okay. We know how to do this.”
Romney’s immediate problem is what to do about his tax returns. He and his advisers must know that the Obama campaign will not be as easily satisfied as Romney’s Republican rivals were when he released his 2010 returns with a promise to make public his 2011 returns when they are done. What they must decide is whether he can put the issue behind him by coughing up more than promised, or is he better to hold the line and take the heat? The answer will offer clues to the question of how confident Romney’s team is in its theory of the case and whether it has a strategy to fend off Obama’s attacks in the meantime.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.