Voters are tuning in to the presidential race much earlier than usual, giving Mitt Romney much less leeway to pull an “Etch A Sketch” and reinvent himself in the general election. That’s the assessment of the pollster tasked with finding out how to beat him, at least.
Obama’s top pollster, Joel Benenson, told TPM at a policy breakfast hosted by Third Way that one of the biggest changes in recent presidential elections has been a constant stream of news via cable, news sites and social media, that’s saturating the public with information and allowing them to form opinions of candidates long before the party conventions.
“Romney didn’t just get to 50 percent unfavorability,” he said. “People are clearly picking up something.”
The result, Benenson says: There’s no “grand gesture” Romney can use, like a big nomination speech, to introduce himself to swing voters since most of them will already be well-acquainted with his campaign. And any sign of movement to the center will be judged against a his shift to the right during the primary, and for a well-established reputation for shifting his positions.
The pollster sounded a skeptical note when asked if Romney might repair his relationship with Hispanic voters by choosing a Hispanic vice presidential nominee, perhaps Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who endorsed the former Massachusetts governor Wednesday night.
“If Mitt Romney puts a Hispanic candiate on the ticket, I don’t think Hispanic voters are going to look at that and say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to ignore that this is a guy who said he would veto the DREAM Act,” he said.
Benenson said some of the most encouraging news for the Obama campaign was how much of the damage to Romney’s image had come from his own public performances, including numerous gaffes related to his wealth.
“The interesting thing, I think, is Mitt Romney has, through earned media, earned his biggest vulnerability,” he said, referring to “the sense that he’s not in touch with the lives of ordinary Americans and that he doesn’t really care about the struggles they’re facing.”
Asked about the burning question of the week, the Supreme Court’s looming decision on health care reform, Benenson refused to speculate on how voters or the campaigns would react to any outcome. But he took issue with the notion that Obama’s re-election message would be wiped out if there were no health care law to run on.
“I think the president has many signature accomplishments over his first term,” he said, citing the auto rescue in particular as a powerful story. “This election has fundamentally shaped up — rightly so — as a battle over contrasts of economic values and economic vision.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.