Almost six years ago, as Mitt Romney prepared to enter the 2008 presidential campaign, his team believed that Romney’s business experience would be a huge plus. According to my sources, Romney and his staff saw a public that yearned, in the aftermath of President Bush, for a super-competent leader. Given Romney’s enormous sucess at Bain and with the 2002 Winter Olympics, he seemed to ooze super-competence.
Things didn’t go according to plan in 2007-2008. For the most part, Romney failed to connect with those who participated in Republican primaries and caucuses. His competence didn’t sway them, perhaps in part because they didn’t subscribe to the narrative that President Bush was incompetent.
When he entered the 2012 campaign, Romney must have thought that his business success would be deemed highly relevant this time around. After all, the campaign was always going to be about economics and jobs. Surely, Romney’s success as a business turnaround guy could not help but resonate favorably.
In the primaries, however, Romney’s Republican rivals attacked Romney’s record at Bain Capital, citing instances in which Bain’s control of companies led to the loss of jobs for Americans. And once Romney’s nomination was assured, Obama made a fetish of this line of attack, going so far as to run an ad in which a woman tried to connect Romney, through Bain, to the death of her husband.
Obama’s Bain-centered attack ads were part of an ad campaign that seemed to drive Romney’s numbers down, particularly in swing states. Romney wasn’t on the airwaves much during this period, and to the extent that he was, he focused, understandably, on attacking Obama’s record.
At the Republican Convention, Romney’s experience at Bain was presented in an affirmative light during the final day, when viewership was high. But the Convention seems not to have produced very much of a bounce for Romney.
Now, however, as voters get serious about deciding which candidate to vote for, Romney’s experience at Bain seems to be a plus. Frank Luntz’s post-second debate focus group of undecided voters in Nevada showed a strong movement to Romney. When focus group members explained their decision, they talked repeatedly about Romney’s business record, repeating the candidate’s refrain that he’s worked in the private sector and understands the job creation process.
Even some left-of-center voters seem impressed by the fact that Romney thrived in the private sector. When interviewed by Greta Van Susteren, the guy who asked Obama the Libya question turned out to be pretty much a liberal Democrat. He agrees with Obama on social issues and, unlike most voters, strongly supports Obamacare. Although (speaking for a bunch of guys who work with him) he asked about Libya, he was clear that Libya would not drive his vote.
Why, then, is he still undecided, even after the debate? He cited Romney’s success in business and with the Winter Olympics.
As for Obama, he took a few Bain-related swipes at Romney. Yet, as the debate closed, he made a point of paying homage to the private sector.
What Obama did not explain, and what voters seem to be wondering, is this: If the big issues is jobs and if job creation is overwhelmingly about the private sector, why not vote for the guy who thrived there for 25 years instead the guy who has no business experience at all?
I still don’t know who will win this election, and I don’t discount the possibility of some very nasty last-minute Bain-oriented ads in states like Ohio. But as we come down the home stretch, it looks like Romney is winning the Bain wars.