On stage last night in Ballroom C of the Tampa Convention Center, Mitt Romney, the winner of the 2012 Florida Republican primary, tried his darndest to simulate the emotional state that Homo sapiens refer to as “happiness.”
“Our opponents in the other party ... like to comfort themselves with the thought that a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak,” he said. “But I’ve got some news for them ... when we gather here in Tampa seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America!”
Rousing stuff. Still, one can imagine that by the time Romney returned to his room and began to scarf down his requisite bowl of Brown Sugar Chex Bites, he was already asking himself a slightly less sunshiney question:
When will it end?
For weeks, pundits and prognosticators have speculated about what kind of shape the GOP’s most likely nominee will be in once this year’s rollercoaster nominating contest finally reaches its inevitable conclusion. Some have argued that the attacks on Romney’s career at Bain Capital will leave the nominee mortally wounded—easy prey for Obama & Co. Others have disagreed, claiming that the Super PAC onslaught will simply toughen him up for the even bloodier battle ahead.
But no one really had any evidence to support their suppositions. Now we do. And while it’s hardly conclusive, a growing body of polling data suggests that the longer Romney is forced to fight Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul for the Republican nomination, the weaker a candidate he will be heading into the fall.
Just take a look at what’s been happening to Romney’s favorability ratings over the last few months. On Nov. 15, Pew released a poll that showed the Mittster’s negative score (45 percent) outstripping his positive score (38 percent) by 7 percentage points. By Jan. 17 the gap had doubled to 14 points.
A few days later, on Jan. 20, Nate Silver of The New York Times posted a round-up of recent surveys. His conclusion? That while Romney’s “favorability rating was unchanged, on average, over the seven polls, some of which showed it increasing and others decreasing” since the start of the year, “his unfavorable rating was up ... in 6 of the 7 polls, and by an average of 3 percentage points.”
Now fast forward to Jan. 24, when The Washington Post and ABC News released their latest poll. Silver’s trendlet had gained momentum: since New Year’s Day, Romney’s favorables had fallen 8 percentage points among all voters; his unfavorables, meanwhile, had risen by 15. The news was even worse among Independents, the voting bloc that will eventually decide the election: an 18-point drop in positive sentiment coupled with a 17-point rise in negative sentiment.
Finally, there was the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey, which came out yesterday. Much like the Post-ABC sounding, it revealed that “Romney’s negatives with independents [have] jumped 13 points in the past month ... and 20 points since November.” In the fall, Romney’s approval rating was solid: 21 percent favorable to 22 percent unfavorable. By last week, however, his unfavorables had shot up 20 points to 42 percent. His favorables were still stuck in the low 20s.
In other words, at least 10 recent polls have shown that the gap between general-election voters who like Romney and general-election voters who dislike Romney is widening—often to more than 20 or 30 percentage points—all as the Republican nominating contest drags on.
Why are voters—especially Independent voters—suddenly souring on Romney? The surveys don’t say. But given the spike in political coverage that has accompanied the primaries, it seems likely that low-information indies—the sort of people who, until recently, didn’t have much of an opinion about Romney because they didn’t know much about him—have over the past few weeks absorbed at least some of the Mitt-related headlines plastered across their local papers and parroted on their local news: that he profited off of dying companies at Bain Capital; that he pays an effective tax rate of only 14 percent; that he’s buried his assets in the Cayman Islands; that he likes to fire people; that he’s willing to spend tens of millions of dollars tearing down his fellow Republicans; and so on.
As a result, the voting blocs most likely to be offended by the image of a plutocratic corporate candidate have been turning away from Romney en masse. These include Rust Belt types—a new Public Policy Polling survey shows that the percentage of Ohioans who disapprove of Mitt (56 percent) is now twice as high as the percentage who approve (28 percent)—and whites with incomes under $50,000, among whom the candidate’s negatives have jumped 20 percentage points since Iowa.
This is pretty strong proof that this year’s wacky GOP primaries are going to wind up hurting Romney in the fall. Supporters of the former Massachusetts governor will, of course, disagree, arguing that (A) Democrats were going to level these attacks anyway, so the sooner the better, and (B) Obama weathered an even longer, harder-fought primary in 2008 and still went on to win Independents (and the election).
But they’re forgetting a few things. First, it’s easy for swing voters to dismiss Democratic barbs as pro forma partisan sniping; it’s harder when the attacks are coming from Romney’s fellow Republicans. Second, the 2008 Democratic primary pulled Obama toward the center, not away from it, like Romney, leaving the future president far better positioned to appeal to moderates than Mitt will be if he’s forced to fend off Gingrich and Santorum for a few more months.
Finally, the reason the battle royale between Hillary and Barack went on forever is because primary voters really liked both of them. At this point in 2008, both Obama and Clinton’s favorable ratings were significantly higher than their unfavorable ratings; their numbers had actually improved since the previous November. In contrast, the reason this year’s Republican race is still going on is because very few primary voters really like any of the candidates, Romney chief among them. If Republicans can’t even bring themselves to support this guy, swing voters must be thinking, then why should we?
None of which is to say that Romney will lose in November. Obama remains the most vulnerable incumbent in modern memory, and Mitt is certainly improving as a campaigner.
But for now, at least, the damage seems real—and neither Gingrich, Santorum, or Paul shows any signs of dropping out. So pour yourself another bowl of Brown Sugar Chex Bites, Mitt. You’re gonna need it.
Read More Daily Beast Contributors about the Florida Primary:Michael Tomasky: It’s Over for NewtJohn Avlon: This Race Is Far From OverMichelle Goldberg: Why Liberals Should Love NewtDavid Frum: Gingrich Knows It’s Over& More