A USA Today/Gallup poll of 12 swing states doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know about the presidential race. It’s very tight, with President Obama holding a slim 47-45 percentage point lead over Mitt Romney in the 12 states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin) that are likely to decide the election. However, the significant figure Democrats will be crowing about is not that two-point edge that is well within the poll’s four-point margin of error. Rather, it is the fact that eight percent of those polled say the political ads they have seen in recent months have influenced their opinions. As the pollsters rightly assume, it isn’t likely that a brief television commercial will change anyone’s opinion of the president — about whom most voters have entrenched views be they positive or negative — but that means the deluge of negative Democratic ads about Mitt Romney have changed some minds about the Republican nominee.
That’s good news for Democrats who understand that sliming the challenger is the only way for a president who can’t run on his record to gain re-election. The bad news is that if the smears directed at Romney’s business record have only managed to keep Obama relatively even with his opponent, it’s a sign he’s in trouble. Contrary to the Pollyannas of political punditry who say such attacks hurt the candidate who throws the mud, going negative is actually quite effective. But while the Democrats can help themselves by seeking to solidify the image of Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy in the minds of the public, the president’s efforts to shift the blame for the poor economy on his predecessors are not working as well. That means the president’s campaign has locked itself into a box in which the only way to go is to continue escalating their attacks on Romney. That’s worrisome for Romney but also doesn’t give Democrats much room for winning over independents who are more concerned about the parlous state of the economy than about Romney’s wealth.
In a close election, what both sides need more than anything else is to turn out their bases. Negative ads about Romney and Obama will help in that regard. The analogy that comes up most often is the way Republican abuse of John Kerry energized conservatives and hurt the Democrat’s efforts to win over independents. The assault on Kerry worked because he was an elitist who had little sympathy for the views of most Americans. Yet each election and each candidate is different. Romney does have a problem connecting with ordinary voters, and the attacks on his record at Bain Capital have done some damage. Romney is a rich guy, but for all of his wealth, he epitomizes the sort of mom and apple pie traditionalism that is hard to hate. Efforts to portray him as weird or sinister are not likely to succeed in the long run because they don’t fit in with his basic character.
Democrats may say they are just getting warmed up in their campaign to slime Romney, but if they get too focused on his personality or background they will be fighting a losing game. Despite his awkward public persona, his flaws don’t really lend themselves to the hate being whipped up against him. At a time when the economy is failing, his image as a wealthy business wiz can help rather than hurt him.
With less than four months to go before Americans go to the polls, the Obama campaign has already emptied its bag of tricks and finds itself effectively tied with the GOP. With a well-funded Romney effort able to answer the Democratic attacks and redouble their own assaults on Obama’s record, the question for the president is whether he will have any cards left to play once the effort to demonize Romney falls short of the mark.