09.25.12

Mark McKinnon: Can Mitt Romney Dig Himself Out?

A new poll suggests a glimmer of hope for Romney’s badly damaged campaign. Mark McKinnon on how he can still make this a race.

He’s in a hole, and this is one shovel-ready job not created by the president: Mitt dug it all by himself.

For reasons articulated ad nauseum by just about everyone with a pen or a laptop, including me, the race for president may in effect be over. If the vote were held today, President Obama likely would be reelected. But that's no fun. We have about six weeks left until Nov. 6. So, in the category of "let's at least keep things interesting," I offer a slim scrap of daylight for Mitt Romney, despite the personal reservations I still hold, outlined in my last column.

Romney is now leading among the middle class, according to the latest Politico-George Washington University Battleground Poll. He has a 14-point advantage over the president among middle-class families, who typically represent a little more than half of all voters.

How did that happen, especially with the negative media attention and critical pundit scrutiny of the past few weeks?

The fundamentals have not really changed. This election has always been about the economy. (Pain in the pocketbook is very personal and a powerful get-out-the-vote motivator.) And the economy will continue to matter most, unless the fires ablaze in the Middle East and elsewhere consume more of the oxygen.

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But the election is also about trust. Who do voters trust most?

Trust was a key factor in 2000, 2004, and 2008.

As the ugly truth continues to unfold about the savage attack in Libya that resulted in the death of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, and about the mishandling of the crisis by the Obama administration, anxiety among voters may increase.

Trust in the president may further deteriorate.

That means the debates may be Romney’s last chance to dig out—if he can unite, rather than divide, groups. (Notice the important caveat: if he can unite.)

Between his Libya response and the taped comment about 47 percent of the country being victims, Romney added unnecessary baggage to a boat that is barely afloat.  But there are physics to this game.  Reporters have plenty of time to write the Mitt comeback narrative.  

Further deterioration in attitudes about security in the Middle East and a good first debate could prove critical—and shift the "already lost" narrative for Romney to "it’s still a race."

Romney is in a hole he dug for himself. It may be too deep for him to shift the soil before it collapses. But we can still see his shovel. Romney may have better than a 47 percent chance of winning. It’s up to him.