Negatives Won’t Kill Romney

In a survey of 6,000 likely voters, including a special sample of 1500 swing voters taken from May 5-11, I probed how Obama’s attacks on Romney were likely to play in the general election.

As the economy declines and his chances for victory fade, President Obama is resorting to a virtual wall to wall negative campaign in a desperate effort to win re-election. It is vital that the Republicans answer these charges as they surface — one by one — but what rebuttals will work?

Obama’s first broadcast negative ad attacks Romney for cutting jobs at Bain. The polling shows that Romney can survive the hit by saying “that sometimes he succeeded in helping companies and sometimes he failed.” The key is to cite the Wall Street Journal study showing that 22 percent of the companies he helped went broke but that 78 percent did fine. When Romney says, “780 is a good batting average in any league!” it rebuts the accusation effectively.

On the other hand, arguments about the need for a high return for investors, Obama’s lack of experience at creating jobs or a defense of the economics of outsourcing do not work well.

Early in the campaign, Obama released a negative ad aimed at criticizing Romney for outsourcing jobs to other countries at Bain Capital. But when Republicans point out that General Motors, a federally owned company, outsources 160,000 or its 220,000 jobs worldwide, it blunts the criticism and turns it back on Obama.

Medicare, sure to be a key controversy in the election, would have been a big win for Obama were it not for his own Medicare cuts and Romney’s repositioning on the issue.

The $500 billion cut the president imposed on Medicare turns off most of the voters who are suspicious of Republican cuts in the program. And when swing voters learn that Romney supports keeping the current Medicare system as an alternative to vouchers if the elderly opt for it, the proposal blunts the president’s accusations that the GOP wants to slash the program.

But a key finding is that the GOP can avoid the false choice between slashing benefits and raising taxes on Medicare by focusing on expanding the number of doctors to avoid rationing and to allow lower costs through greater efficiency rather than by restricting coverage. By 52-25, swing voters embrace this option.

From the start of the campaign, Obama has linked Romney to high oil company profits. This attack is likely to be effective, since most swing voters blame oil companies rather than global markets for high gasoline prices and support repealing their tax breaks. But when you take the issue beyond mere class warfare and envy, it loses its sting.

The key is for Romney to explain that higher oil company taxes will “only cut the money they have available for exploration and drilling” and to warn that doing so will “not cut and might raise gasoline prices.” Swing voters break even on agreeing or disagreeing with this line of argument by 47-46.

To survive this issue, Romney needs to get beyond class warfare and evil oil companies and discuss the pragmatic impact of raising their taxes.

Swing voters agree with Obama’s proposal that millionaires pay 30 percent of their income in taxes. But when told that Obama himself only pays 20 percent in taxes, it blunts the issue. The second rebuttal is to tell voters that the bill would garner only $70 billion to remedy a $3.7 trillion deficit. After learning this, most swing voters see the president’s position as more motivated by getting votes than by cutting the deficit.

There is nothing in Obama’s arsenal of negatives that Romney need fear as long as he rebuts each of the charges using the talking points polling suggests.

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