OpEd Column in The Hill  —  April 4, 2012


General election taking shape

By Peter Fenn – 04/03/12 07:41 PM ET

A month ago Gallup had Mitt Romney defeating President Obama in 12 battleground states 48 percent to 46 percent. This week it had Obama leading Romney 51 percent to 42 percent in those same key states.

Election 2012 has been far from a stable, predictable, ordinary contest, what with super-PACs, six different GOP front-runners and primary debates galore, not to mention an economic roller coaster.

The question now, as the primary season draws to a close, is, are we settling in to a race that has started to gel? Are patterns emerging and images solidifying in voters’ minds?

As many of us know from experience, a month can be an eternity in politics. But there is a sense that the narrative of an Obama-Romney contest is taking shape.

The Romney campaign would like to see a situation in which it can, as aide Eric Fehrnstrom put it, “hit a reset button … almost like an Etch A Sketch … shake it up and restart all over again.”

But the better analogy in politics these days, where everything is out in the open and most of it is on celluloid, is a modern-day white board written on with indelible magic markers. Romney and Obama have filled up their white boards, or had them filled up for them, and it is very hard to erase the impressions.

The latest polls show some very interesting developments as we move to a general-election match-up. The electorate is far from happy about Washington, politicians and the general direction of the country: advantage Romney. But they also see serious improvement. Six in 10 voters in critical battleground states, according to Quinnipiac, believe the economy is recovering: advantage Obama.

And the biggest development of late has been the major move of women against Romney and against the Republicans. According to the new Gallup poll, women under 50 now support Obama by 2-to-1, 60 percent to 30 percent. As recently as February, the numbers were 50 percent to 44 percent.

Most believe that the reigniting of the 1960s culture wars by Republicans has moved women voters and scared them. The attacks on Planned Parenthood and the debate on contraception have been a disaster, and Romney has jumped into this quicksand. His tendency to pander to the far right of the party and to make comments about defunding Planned Parenthood, supporting legislation that is anti-contraception and going after gay rights has cemented voters’ view that he is a throw-back to that bygone era of the 1960s.

In voters’ minds, this is all settled law — the culture wars are over, the “Mad Men” attitude toward women is long past. Romney is in danger of becoming Don Draper in this campaign —

handsome, smart, but very hard to trust and even harder to put in today’s world.

Romney has a very difficult time connecting with working-class voters — accounts in the Cayman Islands and in Switzerland, supporting tax breaks that allow him to pay a 13.9 percent rate in taxes, claiming that he didn’t make much from speeches ($374,000) does not compute. All of this has a certain Don Draper-slickness to it that turns off voters, especially women.

He might need an Etch A Sketch to get himself out of the Don Draper character, however. By Election Day there will not be a voter who has not seen his 180-degree switches on abortion, gay rights, Planned Parenthood, healthcare — just name an issue. Women, even more than men, will question his honesty, his lack of conviction, his willingness to change positions more often than a weather vane in a Massachusetts hurricane.

By contrast, polls show that Obama has held up under the most difficult of times. Voters like him and they trust him. They want more to be done, they are frustrated with the gridlock, they want him to be stronger. But they believe in his policies of fighting for the middle class, taking on the unfair tax breaks that Romney and his cohorts take advantage of year after year.

The images are beginning to gel, and writing new things on that modern white board or erasing old impressions will get increasingly harder to do.