Breaking up is hard to do - especially with Obama
Romney faces the challenge of persuading voters to cut their emotional bond with the president, writes JIM RUTENBERGin Tampa
THROUGH THREE nights of vague videos, sentimental testimonials and, finally, his address to the nation on Thursday, Mitt Romney worked hard to show he has a heart. But he still needs to tackle the much harder job of convincing those Americans who so emotionally invested their hearts in President Barack Obama four years ago that it is time to accept that his presidency did not work, to let go of him and to move on.
Not even Romney’s strategists are pretending that is going to be simple. Even before leaving the nominating convention here, they were beginning a delicate 10-week campaign aimed at those voters who are disappointed in Obama but just cannot yet bring themselves to quit the president.
Following month after month of disappointing job numbers, poll after poll showing dissatisfaction in his economic performance, and hundreds of millions of dollars in negative advertisements, a large portion of wavering voters maintain a personal attachment to Obama and a tentative willingness to give him more time to get it right, top strategists with both campaigns agree.
That is testament, perhaps, to the power of that scene four years ago when Obama and his family first crossed the threshold of the White House to become its first African-American household, “an inspiring moment that so many have awaited so long”, as former president George W Bush put it at the time.
Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, may have painted a biting picture on Wednesday night when he referred to the faded Obama poster hanging above unemployed college graduates’ childhood beds, but the poster was still there, after all. Most challengers face the relatively clinical task of persuading voters to fire the incumbent. Romney faces the more fraught mission of persuading them to break up with the incumbent.
“It’s going to be hard to break the bond a lot of voters feel with Obama, even if they are disappointed,” said Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for Bush. “It may be a bad marriage but they still want to save it.”
It is Romney’s job to convince them that it is beyond repair; that the risks of staying in it are greater than the risks of starting anew with him; and that he and Ryan represent a fresh start akin to a generational change.
But leading these voters – many of them women, according to pollsters – to that conclusion takes finesse and delicacy, Republican strategists say. The sort of visceral attacks for which conservative talk-show hosts are calling risk sending voters into a defence posture on behalf of Obama and, more to the point, of their own decisions four years ago.
Rather, strategists say, it requires providing a path that gives them permission to make the break. They need to be told that it is okay to remain proud of their initial support for Obama but that they can now be equally at peace with a decision to change their minds. “There is no need to make people feel bad about what they’ve done [in order] to feel good about what they’re going to do,” said Stuart Stevens, a senior adviser to Romney, as he sat looking out at the empty convention hall a few hours before his boss’s speech. So it was that Romney used his nomination speech to hark back to that period when “many Americans felt a fresh excitement about the possibilities of a new president”.