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Is Bain The Game Changer? Maybe, But Not Yet

Last week’s health care decision is poised to join a long list of supposed game changers that failed to fundamentally reshape the race—from the death of Osama Bin Laden to Obama’s support for same-sex marriage.

Why haven’t historic events changed the election? None alter the fundamentals of the race: poor economic conditions have lodged Obama’s approval rating beneath 50 percent, but Romney has not yet consolidated the pool of voters with reservations about Obama’s performance, at least in part due to his own deficiencies. Big successes or failures can temporarily inflate or deflate Obama’s approval rating, but Obama’s approval ratings return to their moors as soon as attention returns to the lackluster recovery.  

While fewer than 50 percent of voters approve of Obama’s performance, not all are willing to support Romney—at least not yet. To some extent, Romney’s low standing with respect to the pool of available voters is inevitable, since a relatively unknown challenger must persuade undecided voters of their capacity to handle the Presidency, and so early opposition to the President need not translate to early support for Romney. On the other hand, Romney’s poor favorability ratings suggest that his problem extends beyond the traditional barriers for a challenger.

What could change the game? Not ideological battles, like gay marriage or health care, which reinforce existing partisan divides and energize voters who have already cast their ballots. Economic growth could accelerate and send Obama’s approval ratings over 50 percent, or the recovery could falter and send Obama’s ratings lower, but my suspicion is that the country’s economic performance will be slow to change, if at all, and perceptions of Obama’s performance will be slow to change, as well. Effective campaigning could nudge Obama’s approval ratings slightly up or down, but changes will be marginal and difficult to attribute to specific events if stagnant economic and job growth continues.

But while opinions of Obama’s performance are unlikely to lurch decisively in any direction, attitudes toward the Republican nominee are malleable at this early stage. For that reason, reports about the effectiveness of the Bain attacks must be taken seriously. The attacks strike at the core of Romney’s business message and provide the foundation for additional attacks on Romney’s policy proposals and primary gaffes. While they are unlikely to break the race open, the Bain attacks could plausibly make a lasting difference, unlike the big but transient news of the last two months.

Are the Bain ads working? Rick Klein asserts that the Bain ads are propelling Obama ahead in the battlegrounds without similar gains nationally, but the evidence is inconclusive at this stage. Klein cites recent polls from Quinnipiac University showing Obama ahead in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, but previous Quinnipiac polls have showed Obama leading by an even larger margin in Pennsylvania and Florida. Obama’s 9 point advantage in Ohio is certainly impressive, but other pollsters tell a different story. A PPP poll released at the same time as Quinnipiac’s poll showed Obama’s lead dwindling from 7 to 3 percentage points over the last two months, while the previous poll from Purple Strategies showed Romney moving into the lead.

This doesn’t mean that the Bain ads aren’t working. There are relatively few recent state polls, so Quinnipiac could prove the first of many polls showing Obama with a real advantage in Ohio. The Romney campaign’s behavior, including an effort to get the Washington Post to retract a Bain outsourcing story and an advertisement featuring Hillary Clinton decrying Obama’s attack ads in the 2008 primary, suggests that the Romney campaign believes it is necessary to more vigorously contest the Bain attacks.

Even if Obama doesn’t gain a decided advantage in the battlegrounds, the Bain ads might still be working. The Obama campaign does not need undecided voters to decide to shift to Obama in June, although Chicago might consider that optimal. Instead, the Bain attacks only need to reinforce existing unfavorable perceptions of Romney among undecided voters. This might not show up in the head to head polls in July, but it could in November. In that respect, the Bain advertisements are more significant than the supposed game changers of the last two months.