Nothing has characterized the first phase of the general election more than stability. Despite an array of supposed game-changers, the president’s approval rating remains mired beneath 50 percent, two candidates remain locked in a close race, and Obama consistently holds a narrow lead. In part, Obama’s advantage is attributable to one of the other defining features of the summer: Romney’s weakness. Tonight is Romney's chance to fix it.
According to some polls, Romney’s favorability ratings are among the worst ever, and an average of polls shows Romney in negative territory, 41-46. Although the history of favorability ratings is not as complete as approval ratings, Pew Research shows that no modern candidate has secured the presidency with favorability ratings even close to as poor as Romney's. The Romney campaign will be taking a colossal risk if they don't address this problem, which is why I have criticized their failure to embark on a concerted effort to build up their candidate’s image.
But fortunately for Boston, today is a genuine opportunity to rebuild Romney's brand. Millions voters will watch Romney in an extended format for the first time, and if he makes a positive impression, he could undo much of the damage wrought by months of negative advertisements. The Romney campaign can take inspiration from an unlikely source: Bill Clinton. In 1992, Clinton’s speech help erased lingering doubts about infidelity, inhaling marijuana, and draft dodging and NYT/CBS polls indicate that Clinton’s favorability ratings improved by a net-12 points.
Will Romney follow in Clinton's footsteps? He is not Bill Clinton, and Romney’s campaign hasn’t laid the groundwork to the same extent as the Clinton campaign. But if Romney can’t pull it off tonight, it’s hard to imagine that he will ever turn around his abysmal numbers. The Obama campaign will get their own convention to blast Romney next week, and the public doesn’t usually rethink their perceptions of the candidates in September or October.
So tonight might just be the most important moment of the campaign. If Romney’s speech can re-balance his favorability ratings, he could be well positioned heading into the fall. But if he's unsuccessful, he probably won't get another chance.