The best that can be said about how Mitt Romney fared in July is that he survived. That has only raised the stakes for what the presumptive Republican presidential nominee needs to do in August.
July was not a good month for Romney. His foreign trip drew extensive and negative news coverage, although there were also some pluses, and it’s not clear in any case that it will have any real impact in November. Back home, due to the daily combat between his and President Obama’s campaigns, Romney sustained some damage.
Overall, the head-to-head polls have moved little since the end of June. Obama holds a small but hardly comfortable lead. But the evidence that Romney has been hurt nonetheless came late last week in a poll by the Pew Research Center. Pew found that voters have a more negative impression of the GOP presidential candidate than they did only a month earlier.
Romney’s image has long been a problem, dating back to the nomination contest. As he fought off one after another of his rivals, and as they went after him, the public saw him in increasingly negative terms, despite the fact that he was winning.
That can happen in a tough primary campaign, which is why political parties like to get those fights over long before the general election. But Romney’s negatives were surprisingly high for a presumptive nominee. Then, from March to early summer, Romney was on the upswing. In the Pew Center’s research, the percentage of voters who rated him favorably rose from 29 percent to 41 percent.
In July he went backward. Negative impressions now outweigh positive impressions by 15 percentage points — 52 to 37 percent. A month ago, the difference was just six points. The poll was completed just as Romney’s foreign trip was starting.
The newest numbers put Romney among the worst-rated presidential nominees in the past seven elections. His low numbers were in the same range as 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole and those of President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Both lost their races those years.
Romney is above 50 percent positive in the Pew findings with only two groups: Republicans and white evangelical Protestants. He is at 32 percent favorable among women; 38 percent with college graduates; and just 40 percent among those with incomes above $75,000. Among independents, he is at 41 percent positive.
Romney advisers say the deterioration between June and July is mostly with people who were not going to vote for Romney anyway, which they say worries them less than if they were losing ground again with their core voters. They argue that Obama threw tens of millions of dollars worth of ads at Romney on Bain Capital, outsourcing and tax returns and that it didn’t dramatically change the race.
That still leaves Romney with historically low personal-image numbers as he heads toward the fall. Maybe that matters less than it once did, but it’s hardly an ideal situation for the challenger.
It’s worth noting that Obama’s ratings are far below their 2008 levels. In October 2008, his positive ratings were 40 points higher than his negative ratings. In the latest Pew survey, he is still in positive territory but by only five percentage points — 50 to 45 percent. But Romney is in far worse shape after the pounding he’s taken over Bain, his tax returns and other issues.
The head-to-head polls have largely remained static in that time. But in looking at the numbers nationally and in the battleground states, the consistency of Obama’s lead is striking. More than two dozen national polls have been conducted since the beginning of June. Obama has led in the overwhelming number of them.
Polls in the most contested states show a similar pattern. In three of the most important — Ohio, Florida and Virginia — there have been roughly three dozen polls total since April, about the time that Romney’s GOP rivals were exiting the nomination race. In Ohio and Virginia, Obama has led in all but a few. In Florida, Romney has done better, but overall, Obama has led about twice as often.
Those polls are not definitive predictors of the November outcome, by any means. A movement in the national numbers, which could easily occur in the final weeks, will change the look of many of those states. But at this point, the available evidence suggests that the advantage, however small, is with Obama. If this were truly a dead even race, Romney should be ahead in these polls almost as often as he is behind.
Romney’s team saw June and July as difficult months, a period when the Obama campaign would have more money to spend on advertising than they would (not counting super PAC spending) and a time devoted to expanding a relatively lean staff to get ready for the fall campaign.
His advisers long have said that if Romney can get to his convention with the race close to even, he will be well-positioned to pull ahead during the final two months of campaigning. They still believe that and say they are on track. That presumes that any erosion in his personal image can be turned around quickly before it begins to affect the polls nationally and in the swing states.
That leaves Romney with much to do starting this month. Over the next four weeks, he will need to do what the campaign long has said he would do, which is to introduce himself to the voters in a much more positive and appealing way. He’s known now more for his wealth than anything else, and not in a way that’s helpful.
The candidate needs a fresh look from the voters. He has unveiled new ads and a new focus on the middle class. But his vice-presidential pick will be the first real moment for that fresh look to take place, and this weekend, the Weekly Standard urged him not to make a safe choice of Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio or former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, but instead to go bold with either Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin .
The second and more important moment will be the GOP convention in Tampa, which starts in three weeks. He needs a well-choreographed event and, even more, an exceptional acceptance speech. Others have accomplished as much at their conventions, and Obama’s team expects Romney to repair some of the damage from the summer. But has Romney now created outsize expectations for his convention?
Steve Schmidt, who was the senior strategist in Sen. John McCain’s campaign in 2008, does not believe Romney has erred by waiting until now to do this — provided the campaign has a good plan ready for implementation. “They haven’t waited too long,” he said, “but they’re coming up on the hour when they have to do it, and they have to do it effectively.”
A number of Republican elected officials have called on Romney to offer a bolder and more understandable plan for addressing the economy and the deficit. Will he be able to effectively frame the final weeks of the campaign in a way that puts Obama more on defense and himself more on offense?
One example of being on the defensive: Romney hasn’t answered difficult questions that have been raised about who would and who would not benefit from the tax and economic plan he’s put forward. A report from the unaligned Tax Policy Center, which said the plan doesn’t add up, has punched a hole in his platform that begs to be filled.
Friday’s jobless report was a reminder of the president’s vulnerabilities and the stiff head winds he faces in his bid for reelection. With unemployment above 8 percent for 42 consecutive months, the president has to explain more effectively why things have not gotten better faster. Romney advisers see that as a key weakness in Obama’s message.
But Romney must do more than count on the weak economy to assure his victory in November. August will begin to show whether he is up to the challenges that await him.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.