Could time be running out for Mitt Romney?

A series of high-profile missteps, along with the latest slew of polls, point to an undeniable reality of the presidential race at this stage: Romney is in a rut and he has just seven weeks to get out of it.


First it was the widely panned trip to the London Olympics. Next came an underwhelming convention. Days later, there were shaky policy statements on healthcare and Iran, as well as a much-criticised response to anti-American violence in the Arab world.

Then, on Monday, a video leaked of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney telling donors that 47% of Americans are “victims” who are “dependent upon government” and feel “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it”.

The series of headline-grabbing missteps, coupled with polls showing President Barack Obama with a slim but consistent lead, point to an undeniable reality of the presidential race at this stage: Romney’s campaign is in a ditch, and he has seven weeks to get it out.

“Many candidates have rough patches at different points in a campaign,” Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at right-leaning public policy think tank American Enterprise Institute, said. “But this is a presidential election, and Romney’s got to up his game.”

The Republican’s advisors say he will do just that in the coming days, releasing sharp new ads and giving a series of speeches articulating his economic proposals in greater detail. Romney’s team hopes the campaign’s renewed sense of purpose and focus will help their candidate do what he hasn’t been able to so far: convince voters not just that Obama has been an unsatisfactory president, but, more crucially, that Romney is a better option.

The video fallout

Still, there are challenges ahead. The most immediate of those is the fallout from the leaked video, which prompted exasperated reactions from prominent conservatives like New York Times editorialist David Brooks, who called Romney’s campaign “depressingly inept”, to The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, who deemed it “incompetent”.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign went in for the kill, condemning Romney’s comments as “disdainful” and pouncing specifically on the Republican’s remark that his job is “not to worry about” people receiving government aid. “If you want to be president, you have to work for everyone,” Obama said during an interview with popular TV show host David Letterman on Tuesday.

Though stumbles on the campaign trail rarely alter the fundamental dynamics of a race, the video could serve to ignite Obama’s left-wing base and sway coveted independents; a new Gallup poll published Wednesday showed that nearly one in three unaffiliated voters are less likely to vote for Romney after viewing the video.

In any case, the footage undermines Romney’s efforts to shake off a certain negative image that has clung to him: that of a disconnected rich man who stashes money in foreign accounts, urges tax cuts for the wealthy, and cares little for the average American worker.

“The video is serious, because it is not a gaffe,” noted Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. “It shows Romney comfortable and self-confident, saying things that reinforce doubts about him and concerns about his party’s agenda.”

Though Romney held a news conference late Monday at which he admitted he had not “elegantly stated” his point, he has since tried to recast the comments as conservative straight talk; “The president’s view is one of a larger government; I disagree,” Romney told Fox News.

Not all Republican analysts think that was the right way to calm the storm. “He should have simply said he was wrong,” Bowman said. “Of all the problems Romney has had thus far, this is the most devastating.”

The likeability gap

Once the furore over the video subsides, Romney still faces obstacles in his path to the White House. Despite the sluggish economic recovery, along with recent protests against US consulates and embassies abroad, Obama has remained on top in most national polls since the Democratic convention earlier this month. Surveys also show the president ahead in several crucial swing states like Ohio, Virginia, and Florida.

Pundits generally agree that Obama is benefiting from a so-called “likeability gap”: the fact that despite some unpopular policies, a majority of Americans have positive feelings toward him as a person (57%, according to the latest CNN poll), while Romney consistently scores below 50% on the question.

A Washington Post/ABC survey carried out this month revealed that when asked which candidate they would rather have over to their home for dinner, 52% of respondents chose Obama and only 33% Romney.

And despite well-documented disillusionment among Americans of all leanings, data suggests that the bond between the first African-American president and many US voters is fairly durable; most people, including 62% of moderates, still blame former president George W. Bush and Republicans for current economic woes, according to a recent CNN poll.

A common observation among analysts is that Romney underestimated Americans’ attachment to Obama, and has not been sufficiently active in trying to woo them away. “He hasn’t been on the campaign trail enough in the last few weeks. I don’t understand that decision,” Bowman said. “Maybe the reason they’ve kept him under wraps is that they’re worried about how he’ll respond to various situations in public.”

Daunting demographics

Perhaps the most important factor impeding Romney’s presidential bid remains beyond his control: demographic shifts in the American electorate. African-Americans, Hispanics, unmarried women, young voters, and those with college degrees, all key sources of Obama support, make up a growing share of the voting public; conversely, the proportion of white working-class men, the group Obama has the greatest difficulty attracting, is on the decline.

Romney can take comfort, however, in the fact that there is no guarantee that the growing ranks of presumptive Obama supporters will flock to the polls on election day. Though African-Americans are predicted to turn out in high numbers, as they did in 2008, it remains to be seen whether Obama’s other main constituencies do the same. Surveys gauging voter enthusiasm suggest they may not.

As for the Romney camp’s hope that the three debates scheduled for October will help Romney pull ahead of Obama, the growing consensus seems to be that they won’t. “Romney and Obama are both very good debaters,” Bowman noted. “The debates probably won’t change anything.”

If that’s true, Romney may be running out of chances to turn this race around.

“Obama is very likely to win re-election,” The Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann asserted.


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