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: