Republicans and pundits say Mitt Romney may only need to make one argument this cycle — that’s he is the most competent candidate for president to shepherd the nation’s economy.
The crux of the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign is that he can do for government what he did in business: Run it. He’s fond of saying on the trail that he’s a “conservative businessman” who’s made millions turning around firms and starting new ones, and his administration could leverage business accumen within the public sphere. Polls show this election will be almost uniformly about the economy, and the conventional wisdom is that the candidate who makes the best case for his plan to stimulate growth will be elected.
“The economy is Mitt Romney’s number one strength — he’s clearly had a better sense on how to get things moving again than anyone in either party,” Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster told TPM, saying Romney’s held that title since he first ran in 2008.
The Obama campaign seems prepared to perform political jujitsu on Romney’s greatest strength — by emphasizing his longtime role in business, mostly as a CEO in private equity firm Bain Capital. It’s certainly been proved potent, as Romney’s opponents in the Republican primary (most effectively former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) utilized it for less than a week in South Carolina, and it hurt. Romney went from flying high in the SC polls after his victory in New Hampshire to getting drubbed by Gingrich, who played a more populist, Tea Party-style message into a victory.
The whole affair seemed to serve as an example of what Gallup data has shown for years — that Americans are skeptical of both big business and big government, which are soft spots for Romney and Obama, respectively. Ayres dismissed the Bain theme as a conflation of his background and American distrust for corporations.
“Americans aren’t buying big business, they’re buying Mitt Romney,” Ayres told TPM about the Bain line of attack. “As of today, he [President Obama] could not win a referendum on his leadership and his record. So their only hope is to thoroughly trash Mitt Romney.”
Democrats say Romney has much more to prove. “If Romney wants to talk about competence, he’s following the Dukakis model, which isn’t really where he wants to be,” Doug Usher, managing partner of Purple Strategies and the pollster for Sen. John Kerry’s (D) presidential campaign, referring to the failed 1988 presidential campaign of another governor of the Bay State, Michael Dukakis. “They’re going to need a stronger hook than that…What’s missing is a relatively strong vision. ‘Competence’ is not a slogan.”
At issue is why campaigns are an inexact science — polls show voters want someone who can turn around the economy, and a candidate with a career in business makes sense given that rubric. But it doesn’t mean that all other factors are thrown out the window. The maneuver that needs to be executed, Usher joked, is the transition to “Mitt Romney, ‘hope and change.’”
Which is the direction that the Romney campaign would have to go, if their success is so directly tied to the economic numbers and they continue to improve. But for Republicans optimistic about 2012, growth this year comes far too late — Americans have already been subjected to a term of economic sluggishness, and President Obama will pay a price for it.
“The country is very divided, and that works both ways — just being not-Obama is too risky for Romney, there are too many states that are in play,” Dr. Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College. In other words, combining the basic ability to run government with not being the incumbent is a very difficult task on the presidential level. “I think you’re going to have to go beyond that. If people start thinking we are on the right direction on the economy, the argument that the economy isn’t growing fast enough is tough.”
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.