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Romney's Unfavorable Ratings Impair His Chances of a Comeback in Ohio

It's been apparent for a couple of months now that Mitt Romney has a real problem in Ohio, which is great news for Democrats—Mitt can't realistically afford a loss in the Buckeye State. But if you’ve been looking at the post-DNC polls in Ohio, you might think that Romney’s Ohio problem is a little overstated. Yes, he’s losing by about four points in the state, but he’s also losing by four points nationally. It would seem that his problems in Ohio aren’t necessarily much worse than they are elsewhere. 

But a quick look at Romney’s favorability ratings in Ohio suggests that Romney’s chances of a comeback in the state are worse than Obama’s modest 4-point lead suggests. In post-DNC polling, Romney’s unfavorable ratings exceeded 49 percent in every poll of likely voters. On average, his favorability rating is underwater by an average of 7 points, 43-50, and that’s with the benefit of an outlying Rasmussen poll showing Romney’s favorables at 50 percent. In comparison, Romney trails Obama by a similar or even larger margin in Virginia, but Romney’s ratings there are appreciably better. His favorables are still underwater, but by just 1.5 points, and only one survey shows a majority of voters with an unfavorable view of the Republican nominee.

Obama has never been Ohio’s favorite son, but it’s hard to envision how Romney pulls off a comeback if a majority of voters outright dislike him. Anti-Obama sentiment will get Romney to around 47 percent on Election Day, but Obama’s disapproval ratings are beneath fifty percent. That means Romney’s chances come down to his ability to sweep voters who are ambivalent about the president but dislike Romney. It's hard to envision Romney winning too many of these voters, so if Romney is to have any shot at all, he needs to turn around his image over the next month—which may not be feasible. If there's a recent example of a candidate fundamentally reshaping his image over the final month of a presidential campaign, I don't know what it is. The task of reshaping a candidate's image would be hard for anyone to accomplish at this stage, but for Romney it will be even harder; he's just not the candidate likely to convince voters that he's actually a great guy.

Romney’s unpopularity isn't just an artificial product of misleading or persistent advertisements; it's underpinned by his own weaknesses. He has struggled to connect with voters, and his life story is central to the caricature built by the Obama campaign. It's hard to envision how Romney could untangle himself from Bain, outsourcing, and taxes, especially since voter opinions are probably well entrenched after a full campaign's worth of ads. Moreover, Romney's policies--like tax cuts and reducing regulations--are consistent with Team Obama's caricature. For comparison, consider the attacks on Obama from 2008. Most voters concluded that the caricature of Obama as a radical who palled around with terrorists just didn't align with the candidate they saw on television, who preached post-partisanship and appeared as anything but radical. Perhaps those attacks might have been analogous to the ones on Romney if Obama had staked his case for the presidency on his church attendance or personal associations.

While the Romney campaign could commit themselves to a wave of positive advertisements, Team Romney is unlikely to outspend Team Obama by a decisive margin in Ohio, where the Obama campaign has carefully concentrated a disproportionate share of their expenditures at the expense of peripheral states. It also seems unlikely that Romney would "go positive" at this late stage, given their strategy to date and Obama's proximity to 50 percent of the vote. The Romney campaign's advertising strategy makes it clear that they're still fighting for voters who ought to lean Republican, whether it's last month's welfare ads targeting conservative working class voters or the spots continuing to hammer Obama on coal in southeastern Ohio. 

Given the longevity of Obama's advantage, Romney's high unfavorable ratings, and an unusually early campaign, Ohio appears to "Lean Obama." Absent something remarkable, it looks like Team Obama has done the damage necessary to win the state, even if the limits of the president's appeal suggest that a Romney comeback is still a possibility.