Over the past few weeks, President Obama and his campaign team have launched a furious attack on Mitt Romney's record as head of Bain Capital, a highly successful venture capital firm.
There is clear evidence that the attacks have had some impact. Forty-one percent of voters now see Romney's record in the private sector primarily as a reason to vote for him, but an equal number see that record as a reason to vote against the GOP challenger. That negative perception is up 8 points over the past couple of months.
Yet while raising negative perceptions of Romney's record in business, the Bain attacks have failed to bring about any change in the overall race for the White House. For weeks, the Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll has shown the president's support stuck between 44 percent and 46 percent every day. Romney's numbers are in a similar rut - 44 percent to 47 percent.
One reason for the lack of impact is that the Bain attacks have not reached a point where they raise doubts about Romney's character. Sixty-seven percent of voters believe the former governor of Massachusetts is at least as ethical as most politicians. Comparing Romney to other politicians may not be setting the bar very high, but that's his peer group these days. Using the same standard, the president doesn't measure up quite as well: just 60 percent believe he is at least as ethical as most politicians.
Perhaps even more important, though, is that voters are trying to look forward rather than back. Regardless of what Romney did in his private sector past, voters have come to see a clear distinction between the candidates on the trade-offs between economic growth and economic fairness. It's not a distinction about a laundry list of issues or a particular legislative strategy; it's a distinction about the role the government should play in the economy.
Voters overwhelmingly think it's important to create an environment that encourages economic growth. Nearly as many believe it's important for the government to create an environment that ensures economic fairness. But if there's a choice to be made, voters have a very strong preference for making growth the priority. Sixty-two percent of voters hold that view, while just 30 percent think using government to ensure fairness is more important.
Republicans and unaffiliated voters see growth as more important. Democrats are evenly divided.
That's a perspective that puts the president squarely on the defensive. Most voters believe Obama places a higher value on ensuring economic fairness. Two-thirds think Romney shares the public priority placing economic growth at the top of the list.
Adding to the incumbent's political challenge is the fact that just 19 percent of unaffiliated voters think the president is committed to emphasizing growth over fairness.
The president's attacks on Romney's time at Bain Capital have succeeded in raising some doubts about the challenger, but by highlighting his role as a venture capitalist, the attacks also have reinforced the belief that Romney sees economic growth as his top priority. There is nothing better for the challenger than a race where he is seen as the candidate of economic growth.
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