Mitt Romney is being Swift-Boated
The last few weeks have been eventful in the world of politics. Between the Supreme Court's surprice Obamacare ruling, the unemployment numbers and the President's decision to halt some deportations of illegal immigrants, pundits have had plenty of potential game-changers to analyze. But the most important event of the summer seems to be flying mostly under the radar. It's a battle that will probably determine the outcome, and it's the operation to define Mitt Romney.
In 2004, the term “Swift-Boat” passed into the political lexicon as the group calling themselves Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, funded by Texas conservatives, ran ads attacking John Kerry's record of service. The attacks drew bipartisan condemnation, and were denounced as smear tactics. But they worked. By the fall, his military experience—his supposed strong suit—had been turned into a liability.
In many ways, July 2012 is the mirror image of July 2004. Now, a vulnerable Democratic incumbent is fighting off a Republican challenger. The President's outside allies, meanwhile, are focused on his opponent's perceived strength—economic experience—and are laboring to turn his record into a negative.
For months now, the pro-Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA has been developing and testing the anti-Romney message. Much of their work is already done. In Chicago headquarters, ad designers have been producing hundreds of ads attacking Romney's tenure at Bain Capital. Some of these ads feature workers who lost their jobs in transactions Romney managed—others point to the company's record of profiting as industries they oversaw went bankrupt. There is diversity in the ads, but they all have one ting in common. They focus on Romney's business background like a laser beam, and and portray it as a record of greed and destruction.
And once produced, the ads are tested. Volunteers are gathered to test the power of the attack ads. Some people are plucked from the streets, given a cash reward to watch the ads and give feedback. They are asked what impressions they get—did the ad change their mind? Did they learn something from it? Are they more or less likely to vote for Romney after having seen it?
Now, the attack ads that were judged to be the most effective are airing in five key states. Florida, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania are seeing the ads that target Romney's record at Bain. And the evidence is that these ads are moving the numbers. While Obama and Romney are seen as being tied nationally, the President has opened a statistically significant leads in four of these five states, and is tied or slightly behind in Florida. Moreover, pollsters have found that voters in the media markets targeted by Priorities USA are more likely than others to see Romney's business experience as a negative.
Of course, Romney has his own SuperPAC allies hammering away at the President. American Crossroads, for example, began a $25 million push Monday to slam President Obama's economic record. But it seems that, after three and a half years as the world's most prominent and powerful man, many voters already have strong opinions about the President. That is to say that he's already defined—people have a good idea of who he is, whether or not they support him. The same can't be said of Romney, and this fact means a great opportunity for the Obama campaign.
If they succeed in portraying Romney as an economic shark—and the signs are that so far they are succeeding—this paves the way for their second line of attack. When voters accept that Romney made millions suffering from the economic hardship of others, they will be ready to believe that he will indeed pursue a plutocratic agenda in office, looking out for the 1%, and the 1% only.
Some political analysts see the danger. “If Obama succeeds in defining Mitt Romney before he can define himself,” Charlie Cook, a respected political analyst observed, “then my guess is Obama wins reelection.”
The remarkable thing is that Romney is doing little to nothing to counter the message. He takes lavish vacations, and portrays the image of wealth, letting the Obama campaign do the rest. His aides denounce the attacks, but his campaign shows no serious sign of gearing to present its own side of the story to the voters. Once again, failure mirrors the 2004 campaign, as Kerry's hesitation to address the attacks let them take root in the public's mind. If Obama's allies can tar Romney in a similar way, they can all but guarantee a second term for their man.