In the referendum model of the election, voters ask themselves two questions: First, do I want the president to be re-elected? Second, is the challenger so unacceptable that I simply can’t bring myself to vote for him?…
[V]oters are at Step 2 of the referendum model. They are evaluating Romney. In this situation, the Republicans are doing the exact wrong thing by making 90 percent of their ads attacks on Obama. Although voters always say this but rarely mean it, they really do want Romney to go positive. They are interested in learning about his accomplishments (or lack thereof), especially during his term as governor.
While the Obama camp has been trying to give voters what they want, albeit from a negative perspective (and perhaps part of why Obama hasn’t moved the polls with his blitz is that those voters who are interested in Bain and Romney’s taxes are waiting to hear Romney’s side of the story), the Romney camp and his super PAC supporters have been banging their collective heads against a wall essentially trying to re-convince voters that the president is not doing a good job. Simply put, this won’t do it.
It is a real question whether the Romney campaign gets this.
Go look at the Pew poll that Trende links. Fully 90 percent of registered voters say they already know what they need to know about Obama to make a judgment. With numbers like that, I wonder if his own attack ads against Romney aren’t doing more to sink O’s numbers than Romney’s attack ads are. After all, unlike Mitt’s ads, the anti-Bain spots contain a new piece of information about The One for those who haven’t paid much attention to his M.O. as president: They prove that the avatar of Hopenchange is every bit as willing to throw a punch as the business-as-usual Beltway politicians he campaigned against last time. By contrast, what are Romney’s attack ads telling voters that they haven’t already heard? It’s worth hitting Obama with a new barrage if/when the next terrible jobs report comes out, just to make sure voters are on top of the news, but beyond that, Trende’s point is well taken that there’s really nothing left to say. In fact, that’s one of the things that irked me a bit about Romney’s “Assad must go” comments on Monday. That seemed like criticism of O for the sake of criticism, just one more way to gripe that he’s failing. I don’t blame Romney for wanting to duck a topic as difficult as Syria, but if even I’m impatient with the kitchen-sink “everything Obama’s doing is wrong” approach, I wonder if undecideds are tuning him out.
Question, then, for longtime Romney-watchers: Has Mitt ever run a successful campaign that focused chiefly on his own career and qualifications rather than on destroying his opponent? From what I understand, he tried to tout his Bain credentials in his 1994 Senate run against Kennedy and was brutalized for it. Eight years later, he began his gubernatorial campaign by running on his biography and quickly fell behind by 10 points; only when he went harshly negative did he close the gap. Four years ago, he tried to remake himself as a social conservative warrior in the Republican primary and he fizzled before CPAC. This year, he went nuclear against Gingrich and then Santorum and cruised to the nomination. That’s a lot of reinforcement for the idea that the path to victory lies through keeping the focus on the other guy. Even worse, the Pew poll finds that the one thing voters are most curious about with respect to Romney’s background is his record as governor, and of course the one thing for which he’s best known as governor is the one thing he really, really doesn’t want to talk about on the trail. I think he’s calculating that, while he does need to give voters some sense of who he is, they only need a very impressionistic sense to pull the lever. Obama became a symbol of hope and change; Romney, I think, wants simply to become a symbol of competence. The particulars of his Bain tenure and term as governor are almost unimportant. All you need to know is that he was a huge success in business and he saved the Olympics and he got himself elected governor in a very blue state. As Rich Lowry (I think) once put it, “No one ever regretted hiring Mitt Romney to do a job.” That’s the extent of the “choice” they want to present to voters. Not sure it’s enough for a job as big this, but we’d better hope it is because I don’t see Mitt doing any “fireside chat” ads like President You Didn’t Build That has been putting out lately.