Is attacking Bain a winner?

After months of attacks, an overwhelming majority of voters still see Romney’s private equity past as a good thing

By Steve Kornacki

Published July 24, 2012 12:40PM (EDT)

There was some preliminary and tentative evidence a few weeks ago to suggest the Obama campaign’s emphasis on unflattering aspects of Mitt Romney’s private equity past was paying political dividends.

Now comes the reality check: a new USA Today/Gallup poll that finds that voters by an overwhelming margin – 63 to 29 percent – believe Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital equips him to make good decisions as president. As Greg Sargent notes, the Obama team’s goal in playing up Bain is to break the reflexive association voters tend to make between private sector success and economic policy competence. For all the money and effort that’s gone into the Bain attacks so far, this link is apparently alive and well with most voters.

The poll also finds Romney weathering the attacks in other ways. Susan Page explains:

The Democratic attacks on Romney seem to have had little effect on voters' assessments of him. In February, 53% said the former Massachusetts governor had the personality and leadership qualities a president should have; now 54% do. Then, 42% said they agreed with Romney on the issues that mattered most to them; now 45% do.

This will certainly give fodder to those who argue Obama’s emphasis on Bain is a losing strategy. After all, the poll comes after a few weeks of particularly intense coverage of the subject, thanks to a series of reports that indicated Romney remained involved with the company for three years after the date he claimed to have retired – a time period that saw Bain oversee a politically poisonous plant closure in Kansas City for which Romney has spent a decade trying to escape responsibility.

It also calls into question whether polls earlier this month that suggested Bain denting Romney’s standing in swing states might have been a mirage – or, perhaps, if the discouraging news in this month’s jobs report refocused the public on the economy and undid whatever damage Romney had suffered over Bain. It’s also possible that neither the polls of a few weeks ago nor the new one from USA Today/Gallup add up to much – that it’s the middle of the summer and that it’s too soon to decree whether Bain is or isn’t an effective strategy for Obama.

That last possibility is the most sensible. When it comes to assessing the effectiveness of any strategy in the Obama-Romney race, it’s worth remembering first how few voters are really up for grabs. Party loyalty and perceptions of how the economy is doing will drive the overwhelming majority of voters’ decisions this fall.

In making Bain an issue, the Obama campaign isn’t aiming to create mass hostility toward Romney; it’s trying to undermine his standing with a small but critical chunk of economically frustrated swing voters who might otherwise be inclined to vote out the incumbent. If pointing out that he made his fortune through business transactions that often left workers out of their jobs results in Romney getting only 49.1 percent of the vote instead of 50.1, then the Bain attacks will have been a success, even if they meant nothing to the vast majority of the public.

So the USA Today/Gallup numbers don’t necessarily show that Bain is a strategic bust. It might be, but we really won’t know until November – and even then, it’ll be open to debate. Let’s say, for instance, that Romney ends up losing a squeaker after months of Bain attacks. Presumably, instant histories of the race will decree that Bain saved Obama, even if it was some other factor or factors that actually moved swing voters. In the same way, if Romney ends up winning, Bain will be called a failure, even if it actually made the race tighter than it would have been.

It’s also a good idea to think of the Bain attacks as a long-term process, designed to play out in phases over a period of months. Piece by piece, the Obama campaign is building a case against Romney, and as Jamelle Bouie points out, Bain fits into this in several different ways:

There’s also a second layer to the Bain attacks that is not even apparent yet: the policy dimension to the strategy. The attacks are also about creating an impression of Romney that will make it easier to get voters to believe that he really would cut Medicare and government programs that assist poor and middle class Americans while also cutting taxes for the rich

Bouie likens Bain to the Swift Boat attacks Republicans used against John Kerry in 2004, noting that Kerry didn't start suffering in the polls until that fall, months after the attacks began. So we may yet see more obviously tangible effects from the Bain assault.

Again, all of this is geared toward giving pause to a very small but very pivotal chunk of the electorate that might be inclined to back Romney. It’s completely reasonable to question whether Obama has the right game plan to do this. He may not. Actually, in this economy, there may not even be a right game plan for Obama. But it’s also possible that Bain will mean nothing to most voters and still end up succeeding as a strategy.

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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