With the Republican primary contest over and the general election under way, presumptive nominee Mitt Romney faces a voting public whose disdain for him has reached levels that pollsters describe as "historic." From his embittered opponents, as well as from Romney and his campaign, Americans have learned that the former Massachusetts governor simply won't uphold any political position, issue, or achievement he thinks might cost him votes. He doesn't seem to understand that his inconstancy forfeits more respect than any disagreeable opinion would.
No matter how carefully Romney parses and prevaricates, many voters, including more than a few conservatives, evidently feel they've detected the inner Mitt: a man with utmost regard for himself and people like him — and a profound disregard for people like most of us. They've observed him straining to express sincere concern for the unemployed, the poor, and the powerless, while sounding quite sincerely resentful whenever the privileged are held accountable. They've perceived an attitude of entitlement, whether he is withholding tax returns, defending tax breaks for billionaires, or spending vast amounts to defame opponents. And they don't like it, no matter what they may feel about Barack Obama.
Although one recent poll showed Romney with a small lead matched against Obama — indicating how close this election may ultimately become — most show Obama ahead by several percentage points. What is consistent is polling showing that voters disapprove of the presumptive Republican nominee. As they have learned more about him over the past several years, his negative ratings have soared. Over the past five years, since he began to run for president, the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that negative views of Romney have roughly doubled, from about 24 percent to 47 percent, while his positive ratings have lagged (only 12 percent express "strongly" positive feelings about him).
More important, Romney polls 21 points behind President Obama in public approval — the worst rating for a likely presidential nominee in a Post/ABC poll since 1984. Indeed, he is the first to be "underwater," with higher negative than positive ratings, in the last eight presidential elections.
Vulnerable groups seem to find Romney particularly unappealing and unsympathetic, as the Post/ABC cross-tabulations suggest. Among voters with annual household incomes lower than $50,000, Obama leads by 29 points. Among the young, who now tend to be in debt, without jobs, or both, Obama leads by 36 points. Among married women, Obama is ahead by 20 points. Among unmarried women, his lead grows to an astounding 45 points.
Obama's favorability score is 9 points higher than Romney's among married adults — but this swells to a 37-point advantage among those who are not married. Romney and Obama are seen favorably by about equal numbers of married men, and Obama's unfavorable score is higher in this group. But he jumps to a 20-point higher favorable rating than Romney among married women, 25 points among unmarried men, and, again, 45 points among unmarried women. Overall, Obama is seen not only as more likable and friendly but as more understanding of the economic conditions faced by most Americans.
The latest CNN poll gives the president a substantial lead over his likely challenger, reflecting the same advantage for Obama among low-income, female, and young voters. But all those surveyed felt that Obama was far more likely to stand up for his beliefs than Romney and to sympathize with those less fortunate and less powerful.
Evidently, Romney hopes to bury Obama beneath a barrage of negative advertising, with at least $800 million that his party expects to raise from wealthy conservatives like him. But that won't erase the lasting damage created by a primary campaign that left Americans with a bad impression of the Republican Party and a worse impression of the nominee that process selected so grudgingly.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com.