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Are the Bain Attacks Working? Not According to the Latest Statistics

In my continuing search for evidence that the Obama campaign’s attacks on Mitt Romney and Bain Capital are significantly changing the presidential race, I reviewed three surveys released in the past 24 hours. Once again, there are few signs that it has—so far.

Consider first the latest CBS/NYT national survey, which shows Romney leading Obama 47 to 46. In both April and May, this survey gave Romney 46 percent of the popular vote. In short, there has been no statistically significant movement in Romney’s support during the past three months.

 But the underpinnings of his campaign have improved somewhat. Three months ago, only 27 percent of the people thought that Romney says what he believes most of the time. Today, that’s up 10 percentage points to 37 percent—not great, but moving closer to Obama’s 45 percent. During that period, the share of the electorate professing confidence that Romney’s policies would improve their own financial situation rose from 28 to 32 percent. By contrast only 26 percent believe that Obama’s policies would improve their lot, while 39 percent say that they would make it worse. When voters are asked which candidate they think would do a better job dealing with the economy and unemployment, 49 percent say Romney, versus 41 percent for Obama.

Other indicators have moved against the president as well. April’s CBS/NYT gave the president a 48 percent job approval, versus 42 percent disapproval. Today, that measure stands at 44-46. During that same period, the share of the electorate that thinks the country is on the wrong track rose from 61 to 64 percent while the percentage believing that the economy is getting better declined from 33 to 24 percent. Not surprisingly, the share approving of Obama’s handling of the economy declined from 44 to 39 percent. In an intriguing finding, as of last fall only 41 percent of the voters thought that a president could do “a lot” about the condition of the economy, while 53 percent regarded it as “beyond a president’s control.” Now that has reversed, with 51 percent saying that the president can do a lot and only 40 percent taking a more fatalistic view.

The bulk of the anti-Romney advertising has run in swing states, so if it’s working, one would expect to see the evidence there if anywhere. A bipartisan team (Democracy Corps and Resurgent Republic) has just released a national survey with a swing-state oversample. As of now, the survey finds, Obama leads Romney 47-45 nationally while the swing states are in a dead heat, 46-46. And more detailed questions suggest that the underpinnings of the president’s support may not be as solid in the swing states as they are elsewhere. For example:

Nationally, the right track/wrong track measure stands at 32/60; in the swing states it’s 31/65.
The president’s job national job approval/disapproval stands at 49/48; in the swing states it’s 48/49.

Finally, the president’s signature Affordable Care Act—an important issue for many voters—enjoys significantly less support in the swing states than elsewhere. Nationally, the survey finds 43 percent approve, while 48 percent disapprove. In the swing states it’s worse: 39 for, 52 against. And the survey shows that swing state voters are less likely than others to respond affirmatively to Obama’s strongest arguments in favor of the legislation.

Capping this trio of surveys is the latest Quinnipiac poll on Virginia, one of a handful of evenly poised states whose votes will determine the winner of this year’s election. In March, Obama led Romney 50 to 42 percent. In June, it was 47 to 42. Today it’s a dead heat, 44-44. Since March, the share of Virginia voters with a favorable view of the president has fallen from 51 to 46 percent, while his job approval has fallen from 49 to 45 percent. Only 47 percent of Virginians think that he deserves to be reelected (down from 49 percent), while those who don’t have risen from 47 to 50 percent of the electorate. In March, 47 percent thought that Obama would do a better job handling the economy, versus 45 percent for Romney. Now it’s Romney who leads, 47 to 44 percent. There is a single piece of evidence that Obama’s attacks might be having some effect: the share of Virginians with an unfavorable view of Romney has risen from 37 to 42 percent over the past month. But as we’ve seen, this shift hasn’t noticeably affected Romney’s electoral support.

There are two kinds of argument the Obama campaign could make to deflect these findings. First, they could offer a boxing analogy: The Bain attacks are designed as body blows, not knock-out punches. Although the adversary remains on his feet and appears undamaged, in fact he has been weakened and made more vulnerable in the later rounds of the bout. How do we know? Because experience shows that’s the way the sport works. To this point, it would be useful for the Obama team to offer examples from presidential elections over the past few decades that actually followed this arc—that is, attacks that had no measurable effects for a month or more but that ended up making a difference.

Second, the Obama team could offer a counterfactual claim: Without the Bain attacks, the negative effects of the slowdown in growth and jobs would have been even worse. Maybe so, but it’s hard to see how we’ll ever know. Perhaps this is where politics leaves off and religion begins. After all, we read, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”