Ever since The Washington Post published a story last month stating that Bain Capital had invested in companies that profited from outsourcing American jobs, the presidential race has been consumed by the matter of Romney’s involvement and also by his refusal to release his tax returns. He and his staff have been roundly pilloried, including by their fellow Republicans, for letting the campaign become a referendum on his business career and tax liabilities rather than on Barack Obama’s stewardship of the economy. The president’s campaign is ecstatic. Conservatives are apoplectic. And the media, smelling blood, have been unrelenting.
It isn’t pretty watching Romney’s tortured efforts to hold off his inquisitors. There really is no good reason why he shouldn’t follow his father’s example, as candidates before him have done, and release 12 years’ worth of returns. As George Romney pointed out, “One year could be a fluke, perhaps done for show.” His son’s explanation for not following this advice — that the Obama campaign will attack— is hardly reassuring.
But it’s also worth noting that a month of frenzied preoccupation with Bain and taxes doesn’t appear to have had much impact on the race — at least not yet. The head-to-head match up in the national polls has barely budged. Since June 21, when outsourcing took center stage, Romney’s personal favorability rating has held steady, according to Talking Points Memo’s PollTracker. Obama’s has actually fallen slightly, though he’s in better overall shape.
And Obama’s support among white, blue-collar men — a problematic group for him, but one that could presumably be swayed by the outsourcing and rich-tax-dodger charges — has dropped to a record low. All this has happened during a period when Obama and his allies outspent the opposition, an advantage not likely to endure into the fall.
There is some evidence that these attacks have damaged Romney, at least in the swing states where negative advertising is heaviest. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, for instance, showed that swing-state voters were more likely to say that Romney had cut, rather than created, jobs and twice as likely to see his career at Bain Capital as a reason to oppose, rather than support, him.
Still, most respondents said they didn’t care. The dominant cable-news image of a reeling campaign isn’t borne out by the numbers.
Two weeks ago, Romney blurted out his strategy to Jan Crawford of CBS News: “If I keep talking about the economy, I’m going to win.” It’s true that the state of the economy is historically the best predictor of whether an incumbent president wins reelection, and the numbers don’t look so good for Obama. The Bain/tax furor overshadowed a raft of new forecasts and reports suggesting that the economy is slowing down.
Just this week, Goldman Sachs pegged annualized economic growth at a piddling 1.3 percent. J.P. Morgan lowered its second-quarter estimate from 1.7 percent to 1.4 percent. Retail sales in June declined for the third month in a row. Sales of existing homes fell to an eight-month low. And manufacturing activity contracted for the first time in three years. The eurozone crisis and the looming “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and spending cuts here at home are further dampening the recovery.
Romney’s campaign has made some puzzling tactical decisions and will never win points for style. But it has managed to avoid two big mistakes that have felled previous hopefuls: trying too hard to satisfy the elite media and please party activists.
The noise-to-impact ratio of current issues is just the latest reminder that what matters intensely to Washington consultants and columnists doesn’t necessarily sway voters. And while Romney has proved more pliable than most presidential candidates, he appears to understand that his own interests differ from those of many of his conservative critics. Activists always want the nominee to run as an unbridled champion of their cause so that victory is seen as a mandate to impose their beliefs. Romney knows he just needs to win.
There may be smoother paths to the White House. But if Romney keeps talking about the economy, and continues to withstand the Democratic attacks, there’s no reason to assume that the path he’s on now won’t get him there.
Joshua Green is a national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.