David Winston's newly released poll, based on a survey taken September 12-14, nicely illustrates the challenges facing—and the opportunities available to—the Romney campaign. The poll (with a reasonable D+2 sample) shows a close race, with Obama up 48-46 percent. But it's worth looking at answers to three of Winston's questions in particular, because they suggest the limitations of the Romney campaign’s referendum-on-the-past-four-years, pretend-Bush-didn't-exist, and stingy–with-the-details-about-the-future approach.
Winston asked, "Which is causing more problems in the economy--the economic policies of the present, or the economic policies of the past?" Forty-five percent of respondents said the policies of the present, 48 percent said the policies of the past. So the financial collapse under Bush remains a big problem for Romney. One way to deal with this problem would be to redouble efforts to blame Obama for our economic problems. That's been the Romney campaign's main approach so far. Another way ahead would be to emphasize Romney's future-oriented economic agenda, so it would be harder to claim Romney would simply mean a return to Bush, and to more fully litigate foreign policy and social issues as possible tiebreakers if the economic verdict remains inconclusive. The Romney campaign is showing some signs of moving from the first path toward the second—but so far only in a sporadic and episodic way.
To summon up the courage to abandon the referendum model, the Romney campaign might look at the answer to another question: "In thinking about where things were four years ago, are you better off, worse off, or about the same as 4 years ago?" In response to this question, 33 percent said better off, 39 percent worse off, 27 percent about the same. In other words, the simple better off/worse off question isn't conclusive by itself. This can't be simply a referendum election. Romney needs about 2 out of 5 of the voters who say their situation is "about the same." Those voters would presumably be particularly inclined to cast their votes based on judgments about the future.
Actually, a huge percentage of the electorate claim that the future is the basis of their vote. Winston asked, "Which is the more important question in deciding for whom to vote--whether you were better off than you were four years ago, or whether you believe things will get better in the future?" By 77-18 percent, voters said the future was more important to them. That number is probably a bit misleading—it's in a way politically correct to say you're voting on the future, and in any case your judgment on the future is obviously related to your judgment on the past. Still, this does suggest that a campaign that explicitly looks backward in its appeal won't play well with voters.
Which means Mitt Romney should probably stop saying, as he did yesterday in Colorado, "The American people cannot afford four more years of Barack Obama, and that's why I am going to become president of the United States!" He should say instead, "Paul Ryan and I have a pro-growth, pro-reform, pro-opportunity agenda for America—and we look forward to having the honor of carrying out that agenda over the next four years."