Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Romney, ad buys and diminishing returns

THE POWER of mountains of cash and nonstop television advertising in a presidential campaign is not to be denied. Except when it is. That’s the takeaway message — maybe a blip, maybe a bellwether — in the results of two new opinion polls, and the correlation of those polls with a corresponding increase in donations to Republican Super PACs.

A Quinnipiac University poll out today showed President Obama besting challenger Mitt Romney in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, three of the key dozen battleground states that could be the pivot points of the 2012 election.

And a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of a dozen swing states showed the president besting the former Massachusetts governor by a 50 percent to 42 percent margin in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

According to NBC/WSJ, Romney’s favorability rating has fallen to 30 percent in those 12 swing states from 36 percent one month ago, even as his unfavorable rating rose dramatically to 41 percent from 36 percent.

The latest poll continues a trend: NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling of registered voters generally show President Obama holding on to a consistent lead in voter preference over Romney, by a lot or a little, going back to December 2011.

Let’s look at last month. In May, Karl Rove’s super-PAC Crossroads GPS rolled out a $25 million ad blitz in 10 swing states. Also in May, Romney’s favorable ratings in that month’s NBC/WSJ poll were at 34 percent.

Since May, of course, Romney’s favorables have fallen, according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll that found 30 percent of voters in swing states backed the outsourcing pioneer and former Massachusetts governor.

The downward trend of Romney's favorables didn’t just start happening, either. Using the NBC/WSJ polls as a standing baseline reference: In April his favorables in general polling were at 33 percent. In March they were 28 percent of registered voters polled. In January they were 31 percent. Back in December, Romney's favorables troughed at 24 percent. Month over month, that level of support hasn’t changed much, despite more contributions to Romney SuperPACs from a boardroom-full of individual donors, including cash and commitments from Charles and David Koch and casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. As well as other people with deep pockets whose names we don't even know.

A poll of polls available at Real Clear Politics (subject to change, of course) shows that, right now, the NBC/WSJ polling data stand in nicely as a representative of the results of a broad cross-section of general election opinion polls — ABC News/Washington Post, AP/GfK, PPP, Pew, Rasmussen, Reuters/IPSOS — stretching back to the end of 2011.

The connection? If the current polls are to be believed, it’s obvious: Despite an increase in actual SuperPAC donations or pledges of more money from those dark-money orgs, Romney’s favorables — in swing states and more generally around the country — haven’t similarly increased at all.

If the polls are any indicator, GOP/Romney SuperPACs are spending more money and getting less of a return in favorable reactions to the presumed Republican nominee. In the short term, at least, SuperPAC investment in the Romney campaign, however officially obscured, has been a matter of diminishing returns.

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OH DEAR, what can the matter be? It clearly ain’t money. Maybe it’s message. Or the messenger. “[Romney’s] a known name but an unknown person,” said NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart. “They just haven’t related to him.”

It all strongly suggests that, conceding the importance of money in a presidential campaign, Romney’s coming up short in the message department, failing to punch through a consistently low favorable rating from voters now, just like he failed to do during the crowded, bruising primary season. To go from the polling, and regardless of the avalanche tranche of SuperPAC money, he’s no more well-liked now by those voters than he was then, and it’s months further along in the campaign.

With the finish line not that far off — four months, a week and change — Team Romney needs to be breaking through to a wider general-election audience; The diminishing returns suggested by the new NBC/WSJ poll and its antecedents indicate he’s got a lot to do between now and November.

And ironically, it may not matter that much what he does with monster TV ad buys. Romney’s failure to expand his appeal in the electorate is coming despite an increase in the GOP SuperPAC donations from individual and corporate gifters — and the ad buys paid for by those donations. It’s just possible that the target audience for these nonstop ads has reached a saturation point, growing Romney’s unfavorables out of sheer pique. That’s speculation, though. What’s more evident? There’s more spending going on and, according to the polls, precious little in rising voter sentiment to show for it.

In his old private-equity life, he’d have said that’s not a good return on investment.

Image credits: Romney at NALEO conference: CNN. Poll snapshot: Quinnipiac University. Adelson: Mike Clarke, AFP/Getty Images. NBC/WSJ battleground states polling snapshot: © 2012 Dow Jones & Company.

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