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Obama Transitions to Taxes

The Obama campaign has already depicted Romney as a corporate raider and outsourcer, but over the last forty-eight hours, the Obama campaign has transitioned to a new phase of the offensive: taxes. Obama campaign surrogates launched coordinated attacks on Romney’s investments in foreign tax havens, a Swiss bank account, and unwillingness to release more than one year of tax returns, while President Obama called for a one-year extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for people making less than $250,000.

The two-pronged tax offensive places Romney in a delicate position. He will be forced to oppose extending tax cuts for the middle class and defend tax cuts for affluent Americans immediately after a relentless effort to define Romney as a self-interested plutocrat who prioritizes personal wealth over middle class job security. Undoubtedly, the Obama campaign will deploy personal attacks on Romney’s offshore bank accounts and investments in foreign tax havens to implicate his credibility on taxes—giving the debate unusual and powerful synergy between character and policy questions.

These Romney-specific challenges compound the difficulties of navigating an already challenging political issue. Polls show strong support for allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for affluent Americans. Surely support for extending tax cuts for middle class families is even higher, especially since the GOP will struggle to explain their opposition to extending middle class tax cuts when claiming to support such an extension. Even if the GOP can effectively defuse the issue, bringing up taxes provides ample opportunities for the Obama campaign to pivot to personal attacks on Bermudan shell companies and Swiss bank accounts, solidifying emerging negative impressions of Romney’s business dealings.

The tax issue strikes at the heart of Romney’s path to victory and illustrates the challenge facing his campaign. To win the Presidency, Romney needs a historic showing among white working class voters. While a sufficient number of white working class voters harbor deep reservations about the President’s performance, Romney has not yet consolidated their support and there are more undecided white working class voters than any other demographic group. Undoubtedly, attacks on Romney’s time at Bain Capital, tax evasion, and tax policies will help Obama among these critical voters.

Although Obama’s low approval ratings point toward Romney’s route to victory, narrow and deep gains among single demographic groups are more challenging than broad and shallow gains across the electorate, since deep gains require Romney to not just win independents, but secure voters who traditionally prefer Democratic candidates. The more the campaign divides the electorate along traditional lines, the better Obama’s chances. That’s why Romney evades specific policy debates: Dissatisfaction with the President is the only message that unifies the voters he needs.

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