Romney's business experience a curse?

Republicans often laud private-sector experience as a key quality for chief executives, but Byron York throws a little cold water on the notion in an excellent column for armchair historians today.  In his estimation, neither the GOP nor the Democratic Party have won with a true businessman-as-leader nominee in decades:

The last president elected as a businessman was Herbert Hoover in 1928. “Hoover’s appeal, before his reputation became tarnished by the Depression, was as a problem solver and a solid businessman,” says Princeton University historian Fred Greenstein. “Someone who was not erratic — to the point of being dull.”

Certainly businessmen have tried to win the presidency. Ross Perot ran on his business experience and won 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992. Wall Streeter Wendell Willkie made a strong run against Roosevelt in 1940. But it’s safe to say that running as a businessman has not been a sure-fire route to the White House.

“Business skill and political skill are qualitatively different,” says Steven Hayward, author of the two-volume biography “The Age of Reagan. “They do not transfer well into the other domain.”

However, that’s not exactly a clear analogy to today, either.  York gives short shrift to both Bushes, who combined private-sector experience with varying degrees of public-sector work (the younger Bush only worked in the public sector for less than 15 years combined between two offices).  He also overrates Hoover as a businessman; Hoover certainly did well as a mining engineer, but made more of a name for himself as a relief organizer and humanitarian, and then spent more than a decade in and out of the public sector.  Hoover ran for President in 1920 in one of the GOP’s last brokered conventions (the last was in 1948), losing out early to Warren Harding, and then served as Secretary of Commerce from 1921 until he successfully ran for the Presidency in 1928.

Greg Sargent points to a new poll from WaPo/ABC that bolsters the albatross argument:

If Mitt Romney wins the GOP nomination, as seems increasingly likely, he will have plenty of time to reintroduce himself to national swing voters on his own terms. But in the short term, the evidence is mounting that the bruising GOP primary, and the bipartisan attacks on Romney’s corporate background, low millionaire tax rate, caginess about his tax returns, and his offshoring, are damaging him among the broader electorate.

The Post has just released the first national polling that directly asks about Romney’s corporate past. The results:

Overall, do you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of Romney’s work buying and restructuring companies before he went into politics?

  • Favorable 35
  • Unfavorable 40
  • No opinion 25

Among independents, 36 percent view Romney’s work favorably, versus 37 percent who view it unfavorably. [bullet format added for clarity — Ed]

Interestingly, that problem isn’t alleviated by substituting Newt Gingrich for Romney.  In the same poll snippet linked by Sargent, the survey asked about “Gingrich’s work, since leaving elective office, as a consultant for companies with an interest in federal policymaking,” and found that among all adults (not registered or likely voters), it got a 24/54 favorability rating — far below Romney’s.  It’s also important to note that this poll doesn’t have any information about its sample composition, and given the lengthy history of seriously skewed partisan splits in this series, this may not be the most reliable representation of an actual problem.  It’s worth noting that those leaning Republican like Romney’s experience a lot more than Gingrich’s, 58/24 to 44/40.

In Florida, at least, the news is a lot more sunny about business experience, even for Romney.  This is a poll taken of likely general-election voters in one of the most important swing states for November:

In the battleground state of Florida, a Mason-Dixon poll conducted for the Tampa Times and Miami Herald, showed favorable results for Romney. Nearly half (46 percent) of Florida voters viewed Romney’s business background positively, while just 30 percent negatively.  This is despite lots of scrutiny in the news media about Romney’s record at Bain over the last several weeks.

The numbers suggest that Romney’s work at Bain and his wealth are vulnerabilities, but hardly a silver bullet that will significantly hurt his general election prospects against President Obama.  It’s useful to think about Romney’s vulnerabilities in comparison to other presidential nominees.  Reports on Bill Clinton’s philandering were arguably much more damaging than Romney’s business track record in 1992; his net fav/unfav dropped to negative double-digits in April of that year.   And Ronald Reagan’s outspoken conservatism – including his past opposition to Medicare – was a glaring vulnerability in polls back in 1980.

Like George W. Bush, Romney combines his business experience with at least a short stint as a chief executive in a populous state, regardless of what one thinks of his track record there.  Will Obama make his private-equity experience an issue if Romney wins the nomination?  He’ll certainly try, but after all of the scrutiny and fact-checking done on claims in the GOP fight, it might be old news with few new angles by the time it gets to September.  Meanwhile, we can agree that business success isn’t a be-all, end-all for presidential success, but it won’t be an albatross, either.