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Romney’s negatives are his fault

Tuesday night must have been bittersweet for Mitt Romney. Just as he finally feels the nomination is in hand (as you know, I’ve been pretty confident of that for a while), he sees victory in the general election slipping further from his grasp.

Outside the camera’s eye, Romney is no doubt shaking his fists at Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, blaming them for his difficult straits. They no doubt bear some blame. 

Forty percent of Americans now say what they have been exposed to during the GOP nominating process has made them feel less favorable toward the Republican Party, up 7 points in less than two months, according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. A mere 12 percent feel better about the party based on the clown show they have been watching. Even Republican primary voters were turned off by the display. It did help unite Democrats, almost half of whom told Pew pollsters they feel better about President Obama as a result of learning more about the GOP field.

Gingrich and Santorum have themselves fared poorly in the process. Between January and March, negative assessments of Gingrich jumped 5 points; Santorum’s negatives leapt 12. Ron Paul seems to have remained above the fray — his negatives actually declined a point over the same period. 

Nonetheless, Romney bears considerable responsibility for his own fate. A couple of weeks ago, I noted that his unfavorable rating had skyrocketed by 10 points on average since the end of October. Since then, his standing has deteriorated even further. In October, equal numbers of Americans had favorable and unfavorable impressions of Romney. Today, Romney’s unfavorables are 17 points higher than his favorables, creating a better-than-20-point favorability gap in Obama’s favor. 

Indeed, Romney will be the most unpopular nominee in the last five cycles. During that entire period, only Bob Dole was net-negative at this point, per the NBC/Journal data — and by just 4 points, compared to Romney’s 17. 

Romney’s image problems extend well beneath the surface. The number saying Romney does not “really care about average people” jumped 7 points in two months. As a result, the number who believe that phrase does not describe him is now twice as large as the number who say it does. The view that Romney does not share voters’ positions on the issues is up 5 points. While Romney struggles to portray himself as the savior of America’s economy, voters are evenly divided over whether he can even deal with the problem. 

Romney is likely trying to convince himself that those negatives will disappear as his primary opponents leave the national stage and leave him alone. Don’t count on it. Once acquired, personal negatives are not easily shed, especially for a challenger who doesn’t have an improving economy, a defining foreign policy success or some other dramatic event to force voters into a reevaluation.

In Gallup’s data, 36 percent were unfavorable toward John Kerry in March 2004. During one month those negatives appeared to drop by 2 points (well within the margin of error), but by the fall unfavorables were higher, in the low to mid-40s. NBC/Journal data indicate Bob Dole’s negatives dropped from 39 percent in March 1996 to 33 percent in the aftermath of his convention, but were soon back up, reaching 41 percent on the eve of the election and never returning to the below-30-percent level he enjoyed prior to the start of the election year.

By demonstrating he lacks a philosophical core, by revealing his aloofness and by becoming a symbol not of economic revival but of everything that is wrong with our economy, Mitt Romney has developed a negative image that is likely to haunt him throughout the remainder of the race and help sink his candidacy.

— Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).