The ham-handed attack ads from Obama’s campaign on Mitt Romney’s former firm Bain Capital have drawn a lot of ire from other Democrats — and not only because they were sloppily fact-checked (the ads hit Romney for layoffs that happened long after he left Bain) and because a leading Obama money bundler is a Bain executive himself.
Chiming in with various degrees of disapproval were Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker (who called the attacks “nauseating”), former representative Harold Ford, Obama car czar Steven Rattner, Senator Mark Warner, and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell.
There are other signs of unease among Democratic elites. Contributions to Obama from Silicon Valley and Wall Street have failed to match 2008 numbers.
But what about the voters? Will the Bain ads help Obama? Or could there be some Bain backlash at the polls?
Start with the fact that class-warfare themes have less appeal than some people think. The last Democrat elected president on a class-warfare platform was Harry Truman in 1948.
One reason is that affluent voters are turned off by demonization of the successful. Back in Truman’s day, affluent voters outside the South voted Republican by huge percentages. There just weren’t enough of them to elect Thomas Dewey.
Today, there are a lot more affluent people. The 2008 exit poll showed that 26 percent of voters had household incomes over $100,000. Half of them voted for Obama. He needs those votes again.
My hunch is that Obama’s attacks on Bain will strike most affluent voters as off-putting and that Romney’s calm responses will strike them as reassuring. If you want more jobs created, you don’t go around attacking job creators. Most affluent voters believe that free markets, appropriately regulated, tend to produce fair outcomes. They see investors not as vultures but as creators of jobs and promoters of innovation that increase national productivity and improve the lot of everyone. They see class warfare as an attack on themselves.
Another vulnerability for Obama among the affluent may be his penchant for crony capitalism. The best-known example is the $535 million loan guarantee to the failed solar firm Solyndra, championed by an Obama fundraiser with plenty of access to the Obama White House. It’s not the only example. The Hoover Institution’s Peter Schweizer reports that 71 percent of Obama Energy Department grants and loans went to Democratic bundlers and contributors.
That’s part of a pattern of political payoffs. Unions spent $400 million to elect Democrats in 2008. In return, one-third of stimulus money went to state governments — a payoff to public-employee unions — and bondholders were deprived of their legal rights in the auto bailouts in favor of the United Auto Workers, an episode I called “gangster government.”
Or you can call it “the Chicago way.” After all, why should government contracts go to people who lost the election? The only problem with this logic is that people in the suburbs don’t like it.
There’s evidence that Obama has already lost many affluent voters. The popular vote in House elections is a good proxy for presidential and party support, and voters with incomes over $100,000, evenly split in 2008, voted 58 to 40 percent for Republicans in 2010.
Northern Virginia, which Obama carried 59 to 40 percent and which provided 95 percent of his statewide popular vote margin, went 52 to 47 percent for House Republicans in 2010. Nine suburban Denver counties voted 53 to 46 percent for Obama but switched in 2010 to 54 to 42 percent Republican.
Virginia and Colorado are on both parties’ list of target states. But Obama also hurt the Democratic brand among affluent voters in other states.
The four suburban counties outside Philadelphia voted 57 to 42 percent for Obama, but 52 to 47 percent Republican in 2010. The six suburban counties outside Detroit voted 54 to 45 percent for Obama, but 53 to 44 percent Republican in 2010. That means Pennsylvania and Michigan could be in play.
Affluent suburbs outside the South trended heavily toward Democrats from 1992 to 2008. Now they seem to be trending Republican.
And, as it happens, Republicans have a nominee who demonstrated affirmative appeal in affluent suburbs in primary after primary. They were the base on which he won the nomination.
Romney’s background as the son of an auto-company president has been treated as a liability. But his record as a market innovator and private-equity investor (without inherited money, by the way) may be a plus.
“This is what the campaign is about,” Obama said of the Bain ads. That might not go over well in affluent suburbs.