Over the last few days, Mitt Romney reacted to a few bumps in the road by shifting campaign rhetoric from a cautious and methodical assault on Obama's record to an incoherent temper tantrum.
I've actually been very high on Romney's anti-Obama advertising. The ads were almost perfect in that they can appeal to everyone. The general message is this: "I really wanted Obama to succeed. I'm sad that Obama is such a disappointment, but we have to send him packing."
The best ads convey this message with a female narrator who "reluctantly" tries to explain her disappointment with Obama, a president who she had hoped would succeed. "We rooted for him. But he couldn't do it!"
This is the kind of ad that, if executed correctly, could really depress voters about Obama. It might even depress some Democrats.
If Romney sticks with that message, then he might wear down the strength of Obama's likability. Outside of the conservative bubble, most voters actually like Obama. They think he means well and is intelligent and moral. The key to beating a likable candidate is to convince people that it is alright to vote against the guy you like. The "disappointment" narrative helps give people a reason to make that choice.
Instead of sticking with this effective message, Romney ditched it on Monday and shifted to an attack on Solydra. Or something. I don't know. The general theme seems to be that Obama is a corrupt crook from Chicago, and that he runs with union thugs, and gives kickbacks to his buddies. The implication of the ad is that Obama is a terrible human being.
Within the conservative bubble where Obama is understood to be a "thuggish, brutally efficient incompetent corrupt scumbag weakling socialist Jimmy Carter" these attacks might make sense.
But most voters won't buy this interpretation because it flies against what they already believe. You're not going to get people to say "Obama is a bad guy." In order to land political attacks on a well-known opponent, your criticisms must have some tangential connection with voters' preconceived views on a candidate.
Romney would be better going with "naïve," "weak," "disappointing," "not up to the job," "nice try" or something like that.
Those are words that have at least crept into the consciousness of more than 50% of Americans, if they haven't stuck there. If Romney insists on pushing the Solyndra scandal, he should imply that Obama lost control of his own administration and that his incompetence led to Solyndra's failure. Romney could then pivot to an attack on Romney's general competence.
This would be a plausible narrative. No one outside of the Right-wing bubble is going to buy that Obama is a brutal dictator. In fact, most psychological research shows that when people are presented with evidence that goes against their well-formed beliefs, they tend to stick with what they already believe.
Beyond that, a majority of Americans still want to believe in Obama even if they have lost faith or are disappointed. Romney's previous ads seemed to grasp this framework. His current messaging strays from this strategy.
Romney seems to be in the midst of a week-long temper tantrum. Who could blame him?
Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled that Obamacare was constitutional. This deprives Romney of his ridiculous "constitutionality" distinction between Romneycare and Obamacare and makes it very difficult for Romney to run on his record as a former governor.
Last week, Romney's only remaining positive rationale for his candidacy, his private sector record, flipped from a positive to a negative. You may not believe me, but pay attention to how many times Romney mentions Bain specifically over the rest of the campaign. Comedian Stephen Colbert put it best when he said that Mitt Romney seemed "hell-bent on making the word ‘Bain’ synonymous with a source of harm or ruin.”
The final indignity was Obama's release of an ad featuring a singing Romney.
Many have called this ad brilliant, but I can't even watch it. It's just too awkward. Maybe it works by catching voters' attention. I don't know, but this ad seems to have royally ticked off Romney. You could see his anger this weekend during his TV appearances. It got under his skin. And now he's shifted courses toward a campaign strategy that lacks the consistency and discipline of his earlier efforts.
It's now more of a temper tantrum than a strategy.