Is attacking Bain a winner?

The evidence is tentative, but the strategy may be working for Obama

By Steve Kornacki

Published July 3, 2012 12:44PM (EDT)

The Obama campaign is out with another ad that plays up a recent Washington Post story about Bain Capital’s investments in companies that moved jobs overseas. A week ago, the campaign ran spots in three swing states that dubbed Mitt Romney the “outsourcer-in-chief.” The new blitz will apparently cover nine states and frames the presidential race as a choice between outsourcing and “in-sourcing”

In other ways, the president’s team has been playing the Bain card for months. A review by a media tracking company this week found that from April 10 to June 28 “100% of all ad occurrences sponsored by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action have mentioned Bain Capital by name.” Priorities USA, which is run by two former Obama White House aides, says it has spent about $10 million so far on the ads, which have run in battleground states. Attacks on Romney’s time at Bain (and the nature of the private equity world) are a regular component of pro-Obama talking points.

The question of whether focusing on Bain – a strategy that some big-name Democrats publicly questioned -- will pay dividends in November is still unsettled, but the early signs are encouraging for Obama.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week of the battleground states where voters are most likely to have seen the Bain spots showed Romney with a favorable rating of just 30 percent and an unfavorable score of 41. 33 percent of respondents said that what they had seen or heard about Romney’s private equity past had given them a more negative impression of him, while 18 percent said it made them view him more positively. Polls in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida from Quinnipiac University also showed Obama enjoying healthy leads, with Romney’s image taking a hit.

From Obama’s standpoint, the optimistic take on this is that it demonstrates the resonance of Bain attacks and has established a template that the campaign can use to go after Romney for the rest of the campaign. The counter to this is that the evidence is still pretty thin – it’s only a few early summer polls, that there could be other reasons for Romney’s slippage, and that more bad economic news (the next jobs report comes out this week) could undo whatever gains Obama has made. Sure enough, there’s a new CNN poll out this morning that shows the national horserace stuck in familiar place, with Obama three points ahead of Romney. (The survey actually gives Romney an eight-point lead in the battleground states, but CNN includes three GOP-friendly states in its battleground list that the NBC poll didn’t include.)

While it’s too early to call the Bain strategy a success, it’s possible that it is working. This wouldn’t be unprecedented; Ted Kennedy famously used aggressive attacks on Romney’s business record as he turned an initially close contest into a 17-point rout in their 1994 Massachusetts Senate race. Of course, when Democrats tried the same strategy in the state’ 2002 gubernatorial race, they failed to gain traction, with Romney pulling away late to defeat Shannon O’Brien by seven points.

Who knows why the Bain strategy seemed to work in ’94 and to fail in ’02? It could be that it really didn’t matter in either race – that it received too much credit for Kennedy’s victory simply because the media covering the campaign heard so much about Bain and assumed there had to be a direct connection between the attacks and the election results.

But there is a potentially key difference between how Romney was viewed by voters in those two campaigns. In ’94, he came to the race unknown to virtually all of the state’s voters, a wealthy businessman who had no political experience and had never been in the public spotlight before. In other words: Easy for his opponent to define. ’02 was a different story. Romney came to that race as something of a local hero, fresh off his high-profile role rescuing the Salt Lake Olympics from ruin. In that campaign, voters saw him as more than a random rich guy running for office, which may have made it tougher for the Bain attacks to penetrate.

If that’s the case, then there may be hope for Obama’s strategy, since most voters across the country probably know about as much about Romney now as the average Massachusetts voter did in 1994.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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