Once again, it’s personality versus performance.
The overarching dynamic that has come to define the 2012 campaign is neatly encapsulated in this week’s developments: Just as bad news on the economic front threatens to imperil President Obama’s bid for reelection, Mitt Romney finds a way to remind voters why they don’t like him.
Mr. Romney’s “European Vacation” hasn’t culminated in the destruction of Stonehenge (yet). But already, the candidate is rivaling actor Chevy Chase in his clueless ability to insult and offend. First, Romney had to clear up remarks in the British press from an anonymous “advisor” who claimed that the former Massachusetts governor had a better appreciation of the two countries’ “Anglo-Saxon heritage” than the president. And then, in an interview with Brian Williams of NBC News, Romney suggested that London wasn’t prepared for the Olympic Games, citing concerns about logistics and security.
The British tabloid The Sun put it succinctly: “Mitt the Twit.”
Ironically, Romney’s trip abroad was supposed to be a breather from the daily drama of the campaign trail – a kind of extended photo-op, where the former Olympics head could drop by the 2012 Games and hold some noncontroversial meetings with a few top US allies.
Instead, it has been a nonstop gaffe machine.
And here’s the thing that must be driving the Romney folks up a wall: It has all come at precisely a moment when Romney had one of his best opportunities yet to seize the advantage in this race.
Recently, Mr. Obama made what may prove to be his biggest gaffe of the campaign cycle, with his “you didn’t build that” comment. Although it’s pretty clear in context that the president was referring to roads and bridges, not businesses, the remarks had a dismissive tone that infuriated many small business owners. It gave the Romney campaign an obvious opening to attack the president as being on the side of government rather than free enterprise. Republicans have already cut several ads featuring the line, and the Romney campaign has been holding “We Did Build It” events around the country with small business owners.
But driving a message with surrogates doesn’t have the same effect when the candidate himself is out of the country, putting his foot in his mouth.
Likewise, Romney should be using this moment to focus attention on new signs of weakness in the US economy: Economic growth is slowing, and polls show that voter attitudes about the economy are increasingly pessimistic.
As we wrote a few days ago, the fact that polls show Obama is still even with or slightly ahead of Romney at a time when voters are growing more and more gloomy about their economic future seems almost gravity-defying. The main factor that seems to be preventing Romney from taking the lead is likability – where he trails Obama by an eye-popping 20 points, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The past two days aren’t going to do anything to improve that number.