You might not know it from the day-to-day coverage, but America is warming up to Mitt Romney. A difficult primary left Romney bloodied by his primary opponents, and before he could establish his general-election footing Obama’s campaign began a relentless assault on Romney’s character with tens of millions of dollars of ads.
As a Politico reported in August in a piece titled “Obama Plan: Destroy Romney,” a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House said, “Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney.”
Of course that was the strategy all along. Romney has been accused of causing cancer, shutting down plants full of workers, enjoying firing people, not caring about the very poor, and just about anything else that could be thrown at him from Obama and super PACs such as Priorities USA.
And for the most part the plan was working; Obama maintained leads throughout October based less on voters’ satisfaction with President Obama’s first term, than because Mitt Romney was not deemed to be an acceptable alternative. Romney chipped away at Obama’s record, but could not seem to make up ground because voters did not view him favorably and thus were not open to his message.
Then the Denver debate happened and everything changed. Everyone had said debates couldn’t change the race because they usually don’t. But what pundits neglected to realize is that this was the first time America was able to see Mitt Romney on a national stage, and he defended his record and stated his beliefs in a way that completely shattered the impression created by the millions of dollars of ads against him.
As the polls rapidly tightened many pundits focused solely on the horse-race numbers and neglected to see that Romney gained a lot more than Obama lost. A quick look at the national polls shows that it wasn’t just that Obama lost the first debate, but that Romney finally found a way to connect to voters who were not satisfied with Obama’s first term. From the end of September through today the national average of support for the candidates has swung about five points, giving Romney a thin lead. But the hidden story is that Obama has lost only 1.8 points while Romney has actually gained 3.1 points.
Even the horserace numbers do not show just how significant the change in the national mood towards Romney has been since that debate. While Romney has picked up five points nationwide since the end of September, he has increased his favorability ratings by even wider margins.
On September 30, Romney trailed Obama in the favorability gap by 8.8 points with Obama +6.5 and Romney -2.3. Just over three weeks later, Romney is now leading the favorability gap by 2 points, with Romney up 8.8 points to a +6.5 gap and Obama down two points to a +4.5 gap. While the Romney vs. Obama favorability gap has swung over ten points in Romney’s favor, it is due almost entirely to Romney’s improved image.
Ohio is a stunning example of how voters’ perceptions have changed throughout this campaign. Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling has been surveying voters in Ohio consistently all year, and this is the movement in favorability for Romney since February:
February 1: 28 favorable, 56 unfavorable (-28)
June 26: 35 favorable, 54 unfavorable (-19)
August 12: 41 favorable, 52 unfavorable (-11)
October 20: 49 favorable, 47 unfavorable (+2)
From February until now, there has been a 30 point swing in favorability for Romney in Ohio. That is a massive accomplishment in the face of a barrage of negative advertising that will likely continue until Election Day. In 90 minutes, Romney went from being an unacceptable replacement to a candidate viewed as favorably as the president. The bigger problem for Team Obama now is that when voters see these ads on television over the next two weeks they will be able to compare them to what they know of the real Romney from the debates. And much to Team Obama’s surprise, America actually likes that guy.