But it's an open question how much even this bothers the Romney campaign, which has hung its hat on the referendum theory of presidential politics—that re-elections are straight referenda on the incumbent, leaving the challenger a low threshold of inoffensive sentience to clear in voters' minds. But history doesn't bear that formulation out. The two modern incumbents who failed to win re-election—Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush—lost to huge political talents with whom Willard Romney is not on a par. You can't beat somebody with nobody.
Which brings us back to Bain and taxes. The Obama campaign has worked furiously to define the GOP's somebody. During the five weeks from June 4 to July 22, for example, the Obama campaign spent $43.7 million on television ads while the Romney campaign spent $17.9 million, according to the Washington Post's ad tracker page. (While Romney has been outraising Obama, most of the money can't be spent until the general election begins after the GOP convention.) Romney and his super PAC allies have run a grand total of one personal positive ad in favor of their candidate, according to veteran political analyst Charlie Cook. One. (Nationally, according to the Post, 99 percent of all ads run by the Obama and Romney campaigns from July 9-22 have been negative. That gives a new meaning to the 1 percent.)
To the extent that the Obamans can make Bain the bane of swing voters, the incumbent becomes a more palatable choice. That the Romney campaign has spent a good chunk of July scrambling to talk about anything but Bain is not a good sign for them.
It must be said that for all of the political world's attention on the Bain-and-taxes issue set, it has not translated to movement in the horse-race polls. But look beyond the top line and you'll see grim data for Romney. According to the Washington Post's "The Fix" blog, as recently as May, Americans in toss-up states were split on Romney's Bain background, with equal numbers seeing it as a major reason to vote for him or against him. This month, however, swing state voters saw it as a negative by a ratio of 2-1. And yesterday's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed a majority of voters saying that Romney does not have the "background and set of values" that voters can identify with. In addition, when asked whether what they have heard about Romney in the last couple of weeks gives them a more or less favorable view of him, 28 percent said "more favorable," while 43 percent said "less."
Here's the caveat: At some point in the next month, we'll look back at with bemusement at the mid-July stretch where Romney appeared to falter. The modern media age magnifies every political ebb and flow and makes it seem permanent. It's not. But if this election ends up as close as seems likely, Romney's inability or unwillingness to define himself first could prove fatal.
- See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.
- Follow the Thomas Jefferson Street blog on Twitter at @TJSBlog.
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.