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Sure, Bain Matters. But Do We Have Any Way of Knowing How Much?

The attacks on Bain Capital are working—that’s the conventional wisdom, at least, and there isn’t much cause to doubt it. But that brings up the real question, which no one is able to answer: How much?

To demonstrate the effectiveness of the Bain attacks, most analysts have relied on polls showing that perceptions of Romney’s business experience are different in the battleground states—where the attack ads are running—compared to the rest of the electorate. But while the surveys show net-negative views of Romney’s business record, only a plurality of voters harbor negative views: In some polls, as many as 50 percent of voters are withholding judgment on Romney’s background. Given that the same surveys show a meaningful number of voters outside of the swing states with opinions about Bain Capital, only a sliver of voters—perhaps as little as a net-10 percent of the electorate—may have changed their minds about Romney’s business experience as a result of the campaign.

So who are these voters who have changed their minds? And most important, are they swing voters?  Unfortunately, that's not an easy question to answer. While polls usually answer that question implicitly (if 55 percent of voters think something, plenty of swing voters probably think it too), it’s harder to tell when the number is well beneath 50 percent. If 30 percent of voters have reservations about Romney’s business experience, who says they’re not overwhelmingly Democratic voters? Wouldn’t we expect Democrats to be a quick sell on the evils of Bain?

Further complicating efforts to judge the Bain attacks is the relatively limited scope of anti-Bain advertising. Pundits and surrogates couldn't stop chattering about Obama’s initial attacks on Bain, but the Obama campaign barely played the ads at all. Instead, most Bain ads were deployed by Priorities USA, an Obama-allied super PAC, which is responsible for almost all of the Bain attacks. But Priorities USA doesn’t have the budget of Crossroads, and their efforts have been narrowly targeted at just a handful of markets in five pivotal swing states: Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

The target markets were thoughtfully selected: Most are home to a large number of white working class Democrats or middle class suburbanites. (Priorities steered clear of critical but affluent and inefficient markets like Philadelphia and Washington, where dollars are wasted appealing to suburbs in New Jersey and Maryland.)

Today, Priorities USA added its own polling to the mix, but even their data paints a tenuous picture. Their best evidence is the difference between Obama’s standing in the media markets targeted by Bain ads and the other markets in the same states, but it's hard to judge without a better baseline: How was Obama performing in these media markets two months ago? Even conceding that the Bain attacks have moved the needle by a net-five percentage points in these media markets, these are just a small number of media markets in a few battleground states. The cumulative impact could be important, but it wouldn’t be large enough to clearly show up in aggregate polls of the battleground states. Where would the Bain ads be most likely to make their mark? Colorado and Ohio, where a large portion of the two electorates reside in targeted media markets. Unfortunately, there are few recent polls in either state, making it difficult to corroborate the Priorities USA findings.  

So yes, the Bain attacks are having an impact, but the magnitude of any shift is hard to discern. Polls may show an increase in negative views of Romney's business background, but it's hard to say whether many undecided voters have joined what is likely a predominantly Democratic cohort. Today's numbers from Priorities USA are potentially significant, but they lack an appropriate baseline. Moreover, the Priorities ads have only aired in a portion of the battleground states, making Priority USA's findings difficult to corroborate.

None of this means that the attacks don't matter. In a close national election, a 5 point shift in eleven critical media markets is a big deal. The point is this: The emerging narrative may be that Bain has fundamentally reshaped the race, but the evidence just isn't there yet.