July 18 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama’s chief pollster, Joel Benenson, said Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s experience in private equity and reluctance to disclose additional tax returns speak to issues of character and are fair game for debate in this election.
Romney’s years as chief executive of Boston-based Bain Capital LLC, provide insight into how he would conduct himself as president, and the barrage of campaign advertisements zeroing in on his tenure there have led voters to view his business experience more negatively, Benenson said at a Bloomberg Breakfast today with reporters in Washington.
“It’s certainly a character dimension,” Benenson said. “It’s certainly the way you conduct business and the way you think about things. It translates into where Romney wants to take the country.”
With Republicans now joining the Obama campaign in calling for Romney to release more years of tax returns, Benenson said voters expect more transparency from the candidates. Voters are looking for a candidate who can relate to them, who is going to fight for them, he said.
The former Massachusetts governor’s resistance feeds an impression that he “doesn’t quite get my life” and voters want to know that Romney “played by the same rules, or is there a different set of rules there,” Benenson said.
Romney’s aides have said he’s provided more than what’s required by law. The Republican presidential candidate released his 2010 tax return and promised to make his 2011 documents public when they are ready. Ronald Reagan made seven years of returns public and George H.W. Bush disclosed three years. Romney’s father, George, released 12 years of returns while running for president in 1968.
“When you’re living up to your father’s worst suspicion about what a candidate would do in releasing one or two years of tax returns because it might be a fluke and just for show, I think the public greets that with skepticism,” Benenson said.
Benenson, who is founding partner and president of Benenson Strategy Group, said the onslaught of negative advertisements since May, zeroing in on Romney’s time at Bain and his refusal to disclose additional financial records, has had a measurable effect on voters -- though he declined to provide his data. Still, he said the number of undecided or persuadable voters is smaller than many realize.
“When we look back at this, we may say, ‘Boy there was more money spent in this campaign, between the PACs and everything else, to influence a smaller number of people than we ever have before,’” Benenson said.
Among the demographic groups who will decide the election are suburban voters, especially women with children under the age of 18 living at home, Benenson said. They were a key group in the last several elections and remain so today, he said.
“They’re the CEO of their household in a lot of ways,” Benenson said. They are “very worried about the future.”
Voters remain “pretty steady” in their perceptions of the economy, and rather than judging it based on economic reports, they’re “processing it more close to home from a personal perspective,” he said.
“I don’t think the election will turn on a final jobs report in any month up or down,” Benenson said. “The contours of this election and the shape of this election are being defined day in and day out.”
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