As Mitt Romney's campaign has pursued its strategy in these late spring-to-early summer months, there's been one glaring gap: specifics. No one really has much of an idea what Romney wants to do in terms of policy or what issues he particularly wants to prioritize.
Pundits have noticed. Let's recall Peggy Noonan's admonishment to Romney: "Mr. Romney has to give us a plan. He has to tell us his priorities. To lead is to prioritize, to choose." This is a sentiment that's filtered into the Sunday morning political discussion.
And reporters have been bedeviled by Romney's studied avoidance of precision: Check out Alexander Burns' chronicle of grade A stonewalling that reporters received from Romney spokesman Rick Gorka after the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Arizona's immigration law.
For the time being, I've seen Romney's avoidance of these matters as a delaying strategy. By putting off the moment he announces his plans, priorities and promises for as long as possible, he denies Team Obama Re-Elect a target at which to shoot, while he can pummel away at the economic downturn. That's left the Obama campaign with a few options: attacking Romney's record as the governor of Massachusetts (a tricky proposition, given that this record includes the health care reform idea Obama borrowed) and his record at Bain Capital (equally tricky, as the Democrats have plenty of people in their ranks who seek campaign cash from private equity titans).
But NBC News Political Unit's First Read pulls some interesting data from the guts of the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that might force the Romney camp to challenge its assumptions:
Romney remains largely undefined, according to our poll. Although it shows that only 6% of respondents don't know who Romney is, just 20% say they "know a lot" about him, versus 43% who say the same about Obama. (To be sure, Romney's percentage here is comparable to Obama's when he was running for president at this same point in 2008.) In addition, a majority of Romney supporters -- 58% -- say their vote is more AGAINST Obama than FOR Romney. That's compared to a whopping 72% of Obama supporters who say their vote is more FOR Obama than AGAINST Romney. "[Romney's] a known name but an unknown person," says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D). "They just haven't related to him."
You can pretty much hear Noonan saying, "I told you so." What makes matters worse for Romney is that the vacuum he's been permitted to open has been very well filled by the negative ads that Obama has launched in the swing states, ads that went heavy on attacking -- that's right! -- Romney's record at Bain, as First Read reported:
Among swing-state respondents, 18% say what they've seen and heard about Romney's business record gives them a more POSITIVE opinion about the Republican candidate, versus 33% who say it's more NEGATIVE. That's compared to the national 23%-to-28% margin on this question. The obvious conclusion here is that the negative TV ads pummeling Romney in the battleground states -- like here and here and here -- are having an impact.
Now, part of Romney's calculus here might be the confidence he has that on a long enough timeline, he's going to be able to inundate these swing states with more ads than Obama and his affiliated super PACs can match. But it still seems that Romney is going to have to risk defining himself, for himself, sooner rather than later. This could be a big lift for the risk-averse Romney.
By the way, remember back when the Obama team launched those Bain attacks and the Beltway media completely dismissed them as a total bust in advance? The folks at First Read never got on that bandwagon, recognizing that those attacks weren't pitched to an audience of media elites. They were right, props to them.
At any rate, this all gets potentially exciting tomorrow after the Supreme Court renders its decision on the Affordable Care Act and we're either left with a void to be filled or a re-energized GOP bent on repealing the bill. What does Romney want to replace the health care reform law with, if anything? This could force Romney's policy specifics into the light or it could be the next great 20 question stonewall from a campaign representative.
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Below, a Spotify playlist to guide you through some of Romney's greatest hits:
(May 28, 2012) -- Despite a resurgence of Donald Trump's birther claims, Romney refused to repudiate the billionaire, who has been helping with his 2012 campaign efforts. "You know, I don't agree with all the people who support me ... I need to get 50.1 percent or more and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people," Romney said. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
(April 16, 2012) -- In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, Romney discussed the political fallout over strapping his dog Seamus to a car roof. He admits that he probably would not do it again. (Handout)
WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 4, 2012) -- Speaking before the Newspaper Association of America, Romney attacked Barack Obama on his health record, claiming the president "has taken a series of steps that end Medicare as we know it." (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, N.Y. (March 14, 2012) -- Romney became testy on Fox News while discussing his appeal to lower-income voters. On the same day, Occupy Wall Street protesters staged a demonstration outside Mitt's Waldorf Astoria hotel fundraiser. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
PASCAGOULA, Miss. (March 9, 2012) -- While on the trail in Alabama and Mississippi, Romney got in touch with his Southern side, learning how to say "y'all" and liking his grits. With those new experiences in hand, he admitted that "strange things are happening to me." (Photo: AP/Evan Vucci)
DETROIT, Mich. (Feb. 24, 2012) -- While speaking before the Detroit Economic Club at Ford Field, Romney listed not two, not three, but four American-made cars that he and his wife, Ann, owned. Among the vehicles: "a couple of Cadillacs." (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 1, 2012) -- In an interview with CNN, Romney noted that he is "not concerned about the very poor," citing the social safety net for that segment of the populace. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
THE VILLAGES, Fla. (Jan. 31, 2012) -- On the eve of Florida's primary, Romney led his supporters in a singing of the patriotic song. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Jan. 19, 2012) -- During CNN's GOP debate, Romney refused to commit to disclosing his tax returns, offering no apologies for his success. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
NASHUA, N.H. (Jan. 9, 2012) -- In a speech about insurance options, Romney tells audience members, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." (Photo:AP/Charles Dharapak)
PITTSBURGH, Pa. (Oct. 27, 2011) -- Back in June 2011, Romney said humans are somewhat tied to climate change. By October, he had reversed course, saying "We don't know what causes climate change." (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)