At TalkingPointsMemo, Josh Marshall has posted an interactive version of the chart below, documenting the rather quick deterioration of Mitt Romney’s favorability index. (It’s a compendium of results from six different polls.)
As Marshall puts it, “I don’t think many political observers would disagree that someone that far under water public opinion-wise is just not going to be elected president.” My own opinion is, that depends. I’d like to know a little more before reaching that conclusion.
In this case, I think it’s important to try to understand what may have driven that rather shocking rise in Romney’s unfavorable numbers. Was it a one-time event, a gaffe or something that might be overcome in time, or is it something more fundamental and difficult to shake?
Personally, I can’t think of any one news event substantial enough to have caused this dynamic. Romney hasn’t been hit with some major scandal; he hasn’t committed some monumental blunder that would explain what the chart depicts.
But timing offers an important clue.
Because the chart is an amalgamation of polls, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Romney’s deterioration began. You have to go back to the original data, preferably using polls that have asked the same question repeatedly over a period of time.
For example, here are the last four results as reported in the Washington Post/ABC News poll:
And here are similar numbers culled from CNN’s polling data:
They both tell us the same thing: Romney’s sharp plummet nationally began sometime in the 10-day period between Jan. 12 and Jan. 22. In the Post poll, a five-point favorability advantage on Jan. 8 became an 18-point disadvantage two weeks later. In the CNN poll, a plus-one favorability rating on Jan. 13 became a 20-point disadvantage four weeks later.
And what was happening in that time frame?
Well, Newt Gingrich was beating the holy hell out of Romney in the South Carolina primary, which was held Jan. 21. In the debates and on the airwaves, Gingrich was depicting Romney as a wealthy, out-of-touch Wall Streeter more concerned with making a lot of money than with helping his fellow Americans. Romney’s years with Bain Capital became an issue, and he was forced to reveal tax returns for the last two years documenting high income and low taxes. Thanks to Gingrich, an aspect of Romney’s history and background that had been only vaguely touched upon previously was pushed front and center.
Romney has never recovered, and I’m not sure he ever will.
(I should also note that it’s foolish for Republicans to blame Gingrich for what has happened. He didn’t create this problem for Romney; he merely exposed a major weakness that was destined to come to light anyway.)
As in many things in life, politics is about being in the right place at the right time. Romney’s fate is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In another year, under different circumstances, he might have made a perfectly fine Republican presidential nominee and perhaps a perfectly fine president as well. He’s a smart and decent man with a lot of relevant political experience.
But given the country’s current mood — a mood the Democrats are more than ready to stoke — voters do not seem comfortable with a man who, right or wrong, often comes across as a caricature of an unfeeling Wall Street banker. At times in our history, those people have been perceived as heroes and role models, but that’s not how they are perceived today. Voters do not want to elevate a person of that background to the White House. In fact, the polling data suggest that voters have recoiled from it.
As political strategists will tell you, policy white papers and political platforms are all fine and good, but in the end elections come down to what voters are feeling in their gut. And what Romney makes them feel is not good. Maybe it’s not fair; maybe it’s not all that rational. But it’s reality nonetheless.
It’s quite a predicament for Republicans. Romney has shown no ability to overcome his liability. In fact, the harder he tries for the common touch, the more awkward he becomes. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are not feasible options, and the realists in the party know that waiting until the GOP convention Aug. 27-30 to try to identify and unite behind a white-knight candidate simply is not feasible.
I keep saying that it’s a long time between now and November, and it is. A lot of things could still happen. But this is a helluva pickle for the GOP.
– Jay Bookman