Counting on Voters in the Battlegrounds

Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:25pm

This article originally appeared in the CQ Weekly 2012 Republican Convention Guide.

Talk to Mitt Romney’s closest friends and associates, those who have known him throughout his business and political career, and you will hear affection, pride and reverence typically reserved for family members and lifelong childhood chums. But voters do not feel the same way, according to public opinion polls, and if they did, it is unlikely the battle for the White House would be so close, given the economic headwinds facing President Obama’s re-election bid.

As a major party presidential nominee, Romney brings an impressive résumé: A decade and a half of experience as a chief executive of a private equity firm that helped launch and reboot scores of businesses, including household names such as Staples Inc.; savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics that were in such trouble when Romney was tapped to lead the organizing committee that the Salt Lake City games were in danger of being yanked from the Utah capital; and a four-year term as Massachusetts governor.

And yet, Romney’s two presidential campaigns have inspired a collective shoulder shrug from American voters. It’s not that this Bay State Republican who was reared in Michigan and earned an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University and two post-graduate degrees from Harvard doesn’t impress voters. Polls show they agree he has the skill set to manage the national economy and create jobs – at least more so than Obama. Voters are just not sure they like him, and remain unconvinced that he cares about them and can be entrusted with their future and those of their children.

Accordingly, Romney’s low personal favorable ratings are why many political analysts say Obama holds a slight lead over Romney in all but one – North Carolina – of the 11 states where the presidential race is contested and where the outcome will decide the Nov. 6 election.

The core group of friends, colleagues and supporters who surround Romney believe he is the presidential candidate most able to accomplish the ultimate turnaround project – reviving the U.S. economy. Whether the confidence of his loyalists begins to rub off on voters is likely to determine Romney’s prospects this fall.

Over the past month, eight public opinion polls showed as many as 49 percent and as few as 40 percent of those surveyed ranked Romney favorably; and as many as 50 percent of those surveyed and as few as 39 percent viewed him unfavorably. That suggests he is weak in a crucial category compared with past presidential nominees.

Working to Make Romney Likable

Romney’s team is confident it has time to shift voters’ views upward and contend the likability measurement is far less troubling than the president’s lagging job approval ratings, which have remained below 50 percent in all but one poll conducted since July 9. Job approval ratings are particularly critical to an incumbent making a case for another four years. The week before the Republican nominating convention, an average of the nation’s leading polls tracked by Real Clear Politics found 61.3 percent of those surveyed say the country is on the wrong track, compared with 32 percent who consider the country to be moving in the right direction. Those numbers, combined with the sagging economic indicators, are usually devastating for an incumbent president.

Still, even Romney confidants acknowledge his candidacy has so far been unable to get voters to view him the way they do. “Mitt will never be a great politician. But he might be a great leader and a great president,” said Ron Kaufman, a lobbyist and senior adviser to Romney. “He’s blessed to be at the right place at the right time. I think the country’s going to change toward him.”

This is why the campaign plans to use the national spotlight at this week’s Republican nominating convention in Tampa to re-introduce Romney to voters. The convention will feature his family, his Mormon faith, his business career, his time in charge of the Winter Olympics and his four years as governor. “He has the heart of a servant,” said former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, one of Romney’s senior advisers. “He’s also very personable, very smart and very human,” Talent said. “Mitt expresses compassion for people and a desire to help more by what he does than what he says.”

Americans might never see in Romney exactly what Talent and others in his inner circle do. But a successful, four-day convention might help the GOP nominee bend the trend line on his formability ratings. Such a shift might in turn help close the narrow lead Obama has held nationally despite 42 months of 8 percent-plus unemployment and a growth rate of less than 2 percent so far this year.

A voter shift toward Romney and away from Obama before the election would become evident in the contested states that will determine the election’s outcome. Running on a pledge to put Americans back to work, cut the budget deficit and reign in spending, Romney is focused on the same states as Obama: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and, to a lesser extent, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, all of which went for Obama in 2008.

The Romney campaign is working hard to flip the first eight of those states, an accomplishment that would give him the White House. The campaign considers Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in play based on a softening of the president’s support elsewhere. Specifically, the campaign cites recent polls showing Obama losing ground in Connecticut, Minnesota and Oregon – states that Republicans have little hope of winning – as evidence of voters moving toward Romney.

Romney’s campaign also is eying an expansion of the states it will actively contest, after having fended off a summer of attacks over his tax returns and his tenure at Bain Capital. Among those is Michigan, where Romney’s father served as governor, even though the dynamics there currently favor Obama.

Romney’s camp has yet to prove it is willing to gamble precious resources on Pennsylvania, a state that always appears close but hasn’t voted Republican for president since 1988. But with voter uneasiness, particularly among blue collar Democrats in Western Pennsylvania communities dominated by the energy industry, the Romney campaign isn’t ruling out a major bid to wrest the state’s 20 Electoral College votes from Obama. “The fact that we’re in a jump ball election, having been outspent is pretty amazing,” said Rich Beeson, Romney’s campaign political director. “We’re playing on their turf.”

Although the Romney campaign has been sanguine about its prospects in the Midwest, where Ohio voters are anxious about the economy and Iowa voters are angry about the deficit, confidence has only increased since Romney tapped House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan as his vice presidential running mate. And, in Wisconsin, which Ryan has represented in the House for 14 years, the campaign has turned an Obama-leaning state into a toss-up. “It’s amazing how wide the map is, and it looks like it will be well past Labor Day,” Beeson said.

Congressional Map

Presidential politics overlap in a handful of states that feature the closest Senate races. Republicans need to net four seats to seize the chamber. Nevada, Virginia and Wisconsin, and perhaps Florida and Ohio, are among the states where voters will determine whether Nevada Democrat Harry Reid or Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell is the next Senate majority leader.

In Virginia, where Democrat Tim Kaine, a former governor, is battling Republican George Allen, a former governor and senator, the race is closely tied to the presidential contest. Kaine and Allen are running head to head, according to polls, and Kaine is likely to outperform Obama, so Allen is thought to need a Romney win to take the Senate seat.

Other contested Senate races in Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota are being waged in states where one of the presidential candidates is favored to win. Democrats are defending seats in Missouri, Montana and North Dakota – all of which are expected to go Republican in the presidential contest. Massachusetts Republican Scott P. Brown is seeking re-election in one of the most Democratic states. Even with Romney’s tenure as Massachusetts governor, Brown would need to outperform Romney by a double-digit margin to win in November, analysts say. To do that, he will have to persuade middle-class and blue-collar voters to split their tickets, a possible prospect.

The battle for the House is far less joined. Barring a “wave” election similar to those of the previous three cycles, Democrats have little chance to gain the net 25 seats they need to control the chamber. Most contested House races are far from the presidential battle-ground: New York, California, Illinois and Florida have the largest number, with only Florida in play for the presidency.

For now, taking the House is a long shot, said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. “There is no sign of a partisan wave developing. And that means that, to a large extent, House and Senate races will be fought on their own terms, as individual contests.”