Barack Obama has the advantage with 90 days to go until November 6, and the Romney campaign mostly has itself to blame. Four years after Obama’s decisive victory in 2008, a poor economy, dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, and mediocre approval ratings have conspired to endanger the president’s reelection chances. But a close race, which is what the polls show, is not the same as a dead heat. Romney is an imperfect candidate who has been poorly served by a strategy that has failed to contest Obama’s predictable attacks, leaving him poorly positioned heading into the conventions.
Over the last four years, Obama’s coalition suffered deep enough losses to give his challenger a legitimate path to victory. But those losses were narrow and concentrated among white voters without a college degree, as Obama retains near-2008 levels of support among minorities and college-educated whites. As a wealthy former CEO of a private equity firm with an awkward cadence who could never call himself a great politican, Romney has never naturally appealed to white working class voters, and, as a result, Romney’s ability to capitalize on Obama’s biggest weakness requires him to overcome his own.
With three months to go, these weaknesses are as pronounced as ever. The Obama campaign adopted a strategy to remedy their weakness among white working class voters by defining Romney as an out-of-touch, outsourcing plutocrat willing to close factories, fire workers, and avoid taxes to advance his self-interest. If the Romney campaign possessed effective tools to blunt Obama’s offensive, they weren’t properly employed. Instead, the Romney campaign inexplicably focused on attacking a well-defined incumbent president, while permitting Obama and his allies to broadcast unflattering and uncontested tales about an undefined challenger.
Boston’s ill-advised strategy has endangered Romney’s chances. Romney’s unfavorable ratings remain high and he hasn’t yet consolidated the disaffected white working class voters with reservations about Obama’s performance. In Ohio—ground zero for the Obama campaign’s efforts—Romney’s numbers have plummeted to the low forties, an extremely weak showing in a must win state. Undecided voters harbor particularly unfavorable impressions of the Republican nominee. According to recent surveys, Romney’s favorables are in the teens among undecided voters, while a majority has already formulated a negative impression.
If Romney was closer to fifty percent, he could more easily overcome these problems with undecided voters. But Obama has a consistent three-point edge in national surveys, with 47 or 48 percent of registered voters; this means that to fight to a tie, let alone to win, Romney will need to persuade the preponderance of undecided voters. And while many hold that Obama’s 47 or 48 percent approval rating suggests that a majority of voters are lined up to unconditionally select the challenger, reality is somewhat more complicated. Obama’s net approval is roughly even and a majority of voters usually say they have a favorable opinion of Obama, unlike Romney. While approval ratings are a great indicator of an incumbent’s chances, net-approval or favorability ratings also perform quite well. Once all the metrics are taken into account, it is not clear that a majority of voters are committed to voting against Obama.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, history suggests that undecided voters are unlikely to uniformly flock toward the challenger: Candidates almost always finish above their share of the vote in summer polling. While there are examples of challengers sweeping undecided voters, as Reagan did in 1980, the “1980 or bust” position is hardly enviable. The economy is bad enough that the 1980 scenario can’t be discounted, but the differences between 1980 and 2012 are too great to count on it—especially given Romney’s astonishingly bad numbers among undecided voters.
Despite these errors, Romney retains a credible path to the White House. After all, Obama hasn’t budged from 47 or 48 percent since Romney won the nomination, so it’s clear that a majority of voters have real reservations about giving him a second term. This is the core of Obama's vulnerability, and it is a powerful reason why Romney can still win. And although Romney is far from popular, voters are likely to give him a second or third chance over the next three months. That’s hardly surprising given the state of the economy. Just for good measure, Romney possesses the resources necessary for a second-half comeback.
The question, however, isn’t if Romney could rebuild his brand, but how—and that’s where Romney’s real conundrum resides. Romney’s deficient conservative credentials limit his ability to tack to the center, a move which would have served him extremely well. Boston’s inability to effectively rebrand their candidate—despite sustained unpopularity since he ascended to national prominence—raises the question of whether they’re capable of improving his image at this late stage. If they couldn’t make Romney popular before, how will they do it now?
Perhaps the convention, as well as Romney’s V.P. selection, represents Romney’s best chance to reshape the race. If chosen properly, a vice presidential candidate can reinforce and highlight the Romney campaign’s preferred narrative—whatever that might be. Similarly, the convention will be the first time that most swing voters get to see Romney in extended format, and that probably represents his best opportunity to reshape his public image and push back against emerging negative themes. Of course, the convention is also an opportunity for Obama to reinforce emerging perceptions of Romney and potentially seal his fate, much in the same way that the RNC largely sealed Kerry’s eight years ago.