Mitt Romney desperately needs a good convention to turn around his image, but President Obama has a very different task at hand. And as his advisers plot Obama’s pitch for a second term, they should be looking very hard at what George W. Bush managed to accomplish at the Republican National Convention eight years ago.
Faced with tepid economic growth, the Obama campaign has always been vulnerable. But it has never been clear that a majority of voters are prepared to fire the president. Even though his approval ratings are below 50 percent, most polls show a majority of voters like Obama personally. With those unsung assets, Team Obama launched a barrage of negative attacks directed at defining Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat willing to fire workers, outsource jobs, and evade taxes to advance his self-interest. These attacks were aimed at undecided white working-class voters who have reservations about Obama’s performance. The polls strongly imply that these attacks have been devastating. Some surveys even suggest that Romney is the least popular major party nominee in the modern political era.
If the Obama campaign is wise, it won’t simply attempt to prevent Romney from making gains at his convention. It will also go for the jugular by using the Democratic National Convention as an uninterrupted three-day assault on Romney’s record and weaknesses. In that regard, the Bush 2004 convention represents the perfect model. While John Kerry led Bush for most of the summer, a consistent majority of voters liked Bush personally and the Bush campaign sought to define Kerry early by attacking him on national security. After laying the groundwork for months, convention speakers relentlessly characterized Kerry as a flip-flopper who couldn’t be trusted to protect the country from terrorism. Combined with a case for Bush’s leadership that resonated with his widespread likeability, Bush captured a large lead and never trailed again. Obama won one election by bashing Bush; reelection will require copying Bush’s strategy.