In Presidential Race, Public Opinion Hasn't Budged

The presidential contest remains a dead heat in most polls, and right now it looks likely to remain so into the fall. For now, both campaigns seem to be playing to their bases, with the roles of business and government in dispute.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The presidential race remains where it was yesterday, the day before, and last week. Nothing - not bad jobs reports, historic health care ruling by the Supreme Court, or the tragic massacre in Colorado - has shifted public opinion. But as NPR's Mara Liasson reports, some of the negative ads might be having an effect.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: This week, Mitt Romney put the Obama campaign on the defensive with aggressive attacks on the president's foreign policy record and his remarks about businesses owners. But still, the polls show the race didn't move. That may be because opinions about the incumbent are set in stone. In the latest Pew poll 90 percent of registered voters said they already knew what they needed to know about President Obama. Only 69 percent said the same about Romney. The Obama campaign has been working hard to fill in those blanks with attack ads like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mitt Romney doesn't deny that he invested in companies that outsourced jobs to Mexico and China. He doesn't deny that he made a fortune when it happened.

LIASSON: These ads also don't seem to have made much difference in the race, but at a recent Bloomberg breakfast, Joel Benenson, the president's pollster, claimed the anti Romney ads are raising questions about Romney's central premise - that his business background qualifies him to fix the economy.

JOEL BENENSON: There's an array of polling data that say his business experience is more of a negative than a positive. It's not just because we've been running ads. It's because of what the ads tell people about him and how he really conducted himself in business.

LIASSON: In the latest Reuters poll, for instance, more than a third of registered voters said Romney's tenure at the venture capital firm Bain Capital made their view of him less favorable. One in five said it made their view more favorable. Roger Riley is an unemployed longshoreman and undecided voter from Virginia, a battleground state that's been saturated with ads. Here's what he's learned about the republican challenger.

ROGER RILEY: Mitt Romney, my understanding is, he shipped jobs abroad instead of keeping jobs here in the U.S.

LIASSON: And in the battleground state of Ohio - a must win for Romney - political scientist John Green says the Bain ads are making a difference by keeping the race close. They're helping the president offset concerns about the economy by raising doubts that Romney can create jobs.

JOHN GREEN: One of the arguments that Ohio voters hear in the campaign advertising is that there is an absence of jobs in Ohio but it's because of financiers and corporate leaders who have outsourced jobs and moved them elsewhere, and I so I think that particular message does resonate.

LIASSON: Green thinks without the ads the weak economy would probably be giving Romney a bigger advantage, but there's another factor: the decision by the Romney campaign not to talk about exactly what Romney did at Bain, or for that matter, what he did as governor of Massachusetts.

Political analyst Stu Rothenberg says Romney has been usually silent about his biography.

STU ROTHENBERG: I don't know why early on they didn't have more introductory material trying to get voters to connect with Mitt Romney as a person, as a family man. That's standard strategy. I don't think they've done a lot of that and so it's given the Obama campaign a very clear opportunity to define Romney first before he's defined himself.

LIASSON: And it's given the Obama campaign a relatively blank slate to write on with ads painting Romney not just as an outsourcing venture capitalist, but also secretive, with bank accounts hidden in Switzerland and the Cayman islands. And they've tried to keep the spotlight on Romney's decision not to release his tax returns - a decision he explained this week, on NBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV INTERVIEW)

MITT ROMNEY: What we've noted is our Democrat friends take what's there, twist it, distort it, dishonestly use it in attack ads. I just don't want to give them more material than is required.

LIASSON: Many Republicans think this issue will not go away, but GOP strategist Ed Rogers defers to the campaign.

ED ROGERS: I think the reason they are not releasing more tax returns is probably a good reason. It's probably unflattering, and they've calculated the cost of the pounding they're taking for not releasing the returns versus the pounding they would take if they did release the returns.

LIASSON: And the Romney team is assuming that by October voters will care more about the numbers in the jobs reports than the numbers in Romney's tax returns. To the Romney campaign anything other than the state of the economy is a shiny object - a distraction from the referendum on President Obama. But with the economy struggling and the jobs picture bleak, the deadlock in the polls suggests the president - at least so far - is having some success turning the election into a choice between two candidates. Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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