CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mitt Romney has just one job going into the last, post-convention stretch of the campaign. He has to connect with people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but are disappointed with the president now. He has to assure them that they didn't make a mistake back then, that it wasn't crazy or stupid to believe Obama's promises, but that things just haven't worked out as they hoped. And he has to convince them it's OK to choose a new candidate this time around; they don't owe Obama another vote.
The situation facing Romney is hard for some Republicans to comprehend. They didn't buy Obama's bill of goods in the first place and find it hard to sympathize with anyone who did. But there are millions of people who voted for Obama who are not only disappointed in him but have come to the conclusion that he does not deserve to be re-elected. The problem for Romney is they might still be persuaded to vote for the president. Making them comfortable with the idea of leaving Obama is Romney's job.
Romney campaign advisers are very familiar with the type. They do polling, they do focus groups and they see the phenomenon everywhere. Says campaign pollster Neil Newhouse: "These voters are my mother-in-law. She's a soft Republican and voted with pride for Barack Obama in terms of what it meant for the country. And now, every time she talks to me, she's more than disappointed. She's frustrated. She's upset. She thought she was voting for a transformational leader and feels like we got just another politician." You can bet Newhouse and the Romney campaign are not basing their strategy on one mother-in-law. They're undoubtedly seeing the same thing all the time in their research.
The important thing for Romney, aides believe, is not to rub the voters' noses in their decision from four years ago. Don't bash Obama, don't even harp on how he's not up to the job -- that carries the implication that they should have known that when they voted for him. Just focus on the point that his policies have not made things better. "You've got to be careful in terms of how you talk about the president," says a top Romney campaign aide. "It's his policies and performance voters are concerned about -- that's the focus."
On the afternoon before the Democratic convention began in Charlotte, political messaging guru Frank Luntz convened a focus group in a local office park. He gathered 27 voters, 24 of whom had voted for Obama in 2008. Some were sticking with the president, but a larger number were undecided, and a few had already jumped to Romney. Luntz played some campaign commercials for them.
The best-received ad was one produced by the anti-Obama conservative group Americans for Prosperity, in which '08 Obama voters expressed disappointment with his performance in office. "I think he's a great person; I don't feel he is the right leader for our country," said one woman in the ad. "I still believe in hope and change -- I just don't think Obama is the way to go for that," said another. They reluctantly concluded that Obama has not earned another term in office.
The focus group members liked the fact that, as one said, "it's not a negative ad" and did not feature "dark music playing and black-and-white images of [Obama] on the screen." Another liked that the ad makers "weren't bashing him, weren't being mean, weren't being nasty." The people in the ad seemed like real people, not political hit men. And they said what those voters were thinking.
Luntz also played the group a few clips from Clint Eastwood's much-discussed stand-up routine at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla. (A significant number of them hadn't seen it.) Eastwood was gentle with Obama voters, saying he felt good when Obama won, but high unemployment has gone on for so long that "it may be time for somebody else to come along and solve the problem."
The group watched a clip in which Eastwood said, "[Y]ou, we -- we own this country. ... Politicians are employees of ours. ... And when somebody does not do the job, we've got to let them go." The clip got a very positive reception from Luntz's group, and not just from the few Republicans. That is not good news for the employee in the White House.
Between now and Nov. 6, Romney has to reinforce those voters' thinking about Obama -- and give them a clear picture of what a Romney presidency would look like. The job will take care and hard work, but the voters are more than ready to go along.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.