GOP strategists: Obama campaign's Bain attacks take a page from Swift Boat in 2004
Bain attacks most effective with voters in swing states, poll suggests
Obama camp says Bain critique is fair and relevant
Political experts question accuracy of some of the Bain assertions
Longtime Republican strategists see something familiar in President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign’s attacks on GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s tenure as head of the private equity firm Bain Capital.
Those critiques, they say, seem to borrow a page from the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign that called into question the service record of then-Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran.
“It’s very clear they are trying to re-create and take a page out for the 2004 Bush campaign and define Romney as early as possible,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist for several congressional leaders and partner at the political communications firm Singer Bonjean Strategies.
“The Obama campaign is trying to define Romney before he can define himself to voters. They’re trying to create a cloud around voters. … They’re going to try and throw as much mud against the wall and see what sticks, but when that happens, some of the mud splashes back on you.”
That “mud” might not be sticking to Romney with voters in most of the country, but a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that more swing state voters “now say Romney did more to cut than create jobs in the United States when he worked as a corporate investor before entering politics. And twice as many swing-state voters consider Romney’s work in buying and restructuring companies a reason to oppose, rather than to support, his candidacy” compared with when the question was asked in February.
In comparison, the same Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 50% of those responding said “Romney’s work buying and restructuring companies before he went into politics” is not a major factor in how they plan to vote. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed 60% of respondents say the Obama campaign’s assertion that Romney helped outsource jobs “has no impact on how likely they are to vote” for him.
Both sides claim the polls back them up.
As multiple polling suggests, “the race remains tied despite tens of millions of dollars targeting Romney’s Bain record in swing states,” said Phil Musser, a GOP strategist who in 2007 was a senior adviser to Romney’s presidential campaign. “What does that tell you? It tells you that the outcome of this campaign will turn on who better presents a path back to economic prosperity. The rest of these attacks are white noise to most swing voters, and they haven’t had much impact, except in the hypersensitive political fishbowl of Washington, D.C.”
The Obama campaign has said the attacks are fair and working.
“Gov. Romney has pointed to his experience as a corporate buyout specialist as the central basis for his candidacy, yet he has bristled at any examination of it because he profited off of bankrupting companies and outsourcing jobs, applying an economic philosophy he knows Americans strongly disagree with,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
They’re both right, said John Geer, chairman of Vanderbilt University’s political science department
“In this political environment we shouldn’t expect a lot of movement,” Geer said of polling figures. “Most voters know who they are going to vote for. … The folks up for grabs are in the battleground states.”
And in the fierce quest to win over voters in swing states, “a one-point movement might be huge success,” said Geer, who also heads up Vanderbilt ‘s Ad Rating Project. “Obama’s attack ads are moving swing voters away from Romney toward Obama. … The Obama people know what’s moving the needle.”
Then there’s the whole question of the “truthiness” of the Bain attacks, said Christopher Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
“The comparisons (to Swift Boat) are apt, particularly with the Bain outsourcing of jobs charge because there is a thin veneer of truth to that just as there was a thin coating of truth with the attacks of Kerry not deserving his medals,” Arterton said. “We’re taking a small truth and blowing it up into a substantial charge.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact website, which grades the accuracy of politicians’ statements, gave the Obama campaign’s accusation that “Mitt Romney’s companies were pioneers in outsourcing U.S. jobs to low-wage countries” a “half-true” rating on the organization’s Truth-O-Meter.
Romney “was the founder of Bain and assembled a team that looked to make high returns. One strategy was to invest in companies that played off the trend in outsourcing. … It was widely seen as profitable, and Bain selected companies that would succeed,” PolitiFact wrote. “We find little evidence that the particular firms were ‘pioneers in outsourcing.’ … The Obama campaign’s statement would have voters believe that Romney played a key role in driving the outsourcing phenomenon. We find that an exaggeration.”
A senior Obama campaign official said Romney’s tenure at Bain “will remain central to the discussion.”
A central part of the discussion is fine, as long as it’s not the only line of attack, said Paul Brewer, a professor and assistant director for research at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication.
“For voters, you might see voters get burned out on the repetition of one specific message,” Brewer said. “If Obama kept trying to attack Romney on Bain, it wouldn’t be new. But if the Obama campaign could come up with new messages … as long as they could keep doing that, it would be less likely that any one message would have that burnout effect.”