A lot of political insiders in both parties think Bain Capital is pretty much a dead issue in the 2012 presidential campaign. After all, Mitt Romney has ably defended his work at the private equity firm that made him rich, and a number of top Democrats, ranging from Cory Booker to Ed Rendell to Bill Clinton himself, have defended Bain and companies like it. So there’s an emerging consensus that Bain is over as an issue.
Except it’s not. Not only do President Obama’s strategists still believe Romney’s business record will be an effective issue, a new poll by a bipartisan firm suggests attacks on Romney’s past might play well in some key swing states this fall.
Purple Strategies is a political consulting firm that includes Republican strategist Alex Castellanos and Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. For its new Purple Poll, the company’s pollsters read two statements to voters in several swing states, each statement appropriating the language of one side in the Bain debate.
The first was: “Private investment and equity firms help the American economy grow. They launch new companies and rebuild existing ones, including some of the biggest employers in America. Their work has created millions of jobs and will help drive America’s recovery.”
The second was: “Private investment and equity firms care only about profits and short-term gains for investors. When they come in, workers get laid off, benefits disappear, and pensions are cut. Investors walk off with big returns, and working folks get stuck holding the bag.”
The overall result in these swing states: Forty-seven percent agreed with the “care only about profits” description, while 38 percent picked the “help America grow” statement. That’s a significant amount of anti-Bain sentiment.
The results are particularly striking in Ohio, perhaps the most important state in November’s election. Forty-nine percent of Ohioans agreed with the “care only about profits” description of private equity, while 33 percent agreed with the “help America grow” description.
In Florida, another absolutely critical state, the numbers aren’t as decisive — 47 to 40 in favor of “care only about profits.” But they still help Obama.
Other states are different stories. In Colorado, the two sides are in a virtual tie, 44 to 43 in favor of “care only about profits.” In Virginia, the “help America grow” answer is slightly ahead, 44 to 42.
The Purple pollsters say the Bain issue resonates powerfully with independents, who sided with “care only about profits” 48 percent to 38 percent. It also works with women, who chose “care only about profits” 47 percent to 33 percent.
“Across the purple states, this argument has the hallmarks of a classic wedge issue for the president,” writes the Purple team. “It consolidates Democrats and has a plurality of support among independents.”
But what about all the criticism of Obama’s Bain attacks, particularly from Democrats? Talk to some Democratic strategists (not associated with the Obama campaign) and they suggest the criticism is mainly confined to the Washington-New York corridor, where Democratic politicians and former politicians depend on friends in private equity to fund their global initiatives, their business ventures and their future campaigns. There’s nothing in it for them to bash Bain.
Since those Democrats are also in the center of the media world, their criticism of Obama for hitting Romney on Bain received a huge amount of attention. But the average independent voter in Ohio doesn’t live in a private equity world, and the Purple Poll suggests his or her reaction to the Bain issue is quite different.
At the moment, there’s no reason to believe the Obama campaign has abandoned plans to hit Romney on Bain in the future. In a conversation in his Chicago office last month, top Obama strategist David Axelrod seemed convinced Bain is an important part of the campaign.
The idea of investments that pay off even if a company fails, Axelrod said, “bothers a lot of people around the country.” And the values that make a private equity businessman successful are “not the values that drive the economy.”
Axelrod, who declined to reveal the campaign’s plans, didn’t sound like a man who has abandoned Bain as a future campaign issue. And now the Purple Poll provides new ammunition for those Democrats who want to give it another shot. Perhaps not this week or next, but certainly in the fall, Bain will be back.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.