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First Thoughts: The battle to define Romney

Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, surrounded by volunteers, speaks during a tour of the Care and Share food bank in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on July 10, 2012.

The battle to define Romney… Obama camp outspending Romney on the airwaves, but total pro-Romney groups outspending Team Obama… An example where TV ad spending can move the needle: Michigan… This week’s 10 hottest advertising markets… Veepstakes alert!!!… Should Democrats be nervous about Scranton?... Drumbeat for Romney to release more tax returns gets louder… Today’s health-care theatrics on the Hill… And Cornyn’s memo on November.

*** The battle to define Romney: The Obama campaign and its allies argue that their work to define Romney -- through TV ads like this and this -- is working. The Romney camp counters, however, that the race remains close and Obama is still below 50%, despite all the money the Obama camp is spending on ads (and it’s only July). Both statements seem to be true. Let's take a look at the numbers. According to new polling conducted for the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA in the states of Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia (among likely voters from June 25-July 3), 37% say that Romney’s past business experience makes them LESS likely to vote for him, versus 27% who say it makes them MORE likely to vote for him. That's not too dissimilar from the recent NBC/WSJ poll, which found an 18%-33% ratio in the battlegrounds (and 23%-28% overall). And the Priorities polling also shows Obama leading in Colorado (49%-42%), Florida (48%-44%), Ohio (48%-41%), Pennsylvania (49%-40%), and Virginia (46%-43%). Again, that’s pretty close to what our NBC/WSJ poll found for 12 battleground states -- Obama 50%, Romney 42%. As Charlie Cook recently wrote, “If President Obama’s campaign machine can define Mitt Romney before his own campaign even tries, my bet is Obama wins reelection.”

*** Obama outspending Romney, but pro-GOP groups outspending pro-Dem groups: As we noted yesterday, Romney is being outspent by Obama in the battleground states -- due in large part to the fact that Romney can't use general election funds until after the GOP convention. According to ad-spending data from NBC/SMG Delta, the Obama camp has purchased $7.5 million in ads this week, versus $4.7 million for the Romney campaign. And for the entire general election, it's $99.4 million vs. $27.4 million. That said, total pro-Romney spending this week (campaign, Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity, etc) is outpacing total pro-Obama spending, $11.9 million vs. $8.4 million. And overall, it’s $163.4 to $114.7 million. So what's going on here? How could Romney be negatively defined when Republicans are spending more in ads? Here are a couple of explanations: 1) Obama, because he's the incumbent president, is simply more defined than Romney and thus negative advertising is likely to have a bigger impact on Romney than Obama; and 2) the message from the GOP advertising entities (Romney camp, Crossroads, Restore, etc.) is more dispersed, while the two Obama entities (campaign, Priorities USA) is more concentrated.  By the way, there is growing chatter among some Romney allies wondering aloud if the TV ads from the GOP Super PACs could be better. And given this data, do they have a point?

*** An example where ad spending can move the needle: But you want a clear example of how advertising -- especially when it's uncontested -- can move the needle? Look no further than in Michigan, where pro-Romney groups have spent a combined $4.7 million so far during the general election, versus just $10,000 by pro-Obama groups. That’s why the race has tightened in Michigan, per our recent NBC-Marist poll. This is the potential threat all the outside GOP spending could have on this race: If uncontested, it could open up states where Team Obama doesn't want to advertise. If you want to know one of the things that keeps Jim Messina and David Plouffe up some nights, it’s THIS issue…

*** This week’s 10 hottest advertising markets: Given this discussion of ad-spending numbers, here’s our weekly look at the 10 hottest advertising markets (in terms of advertising points from July 9-July 15). The big story here: Three of the top four markets are in Colorado, including top-ranked Colorado Springs, which holds on to its No.1 slot from last week. In addition, two markets are in Florida, two in Virginia, two in North Carolina, and one in Ohio. One other thing worth noting: Check out how Romney is outspending Obama in some of these 10 hottest markets, even as Obama is outspending Romney nearly 2-1 for the week. So what has to be occurring is that Obama is outspending in markets that the Romney campaign really isn’t contesting -- for now.

1. Colorado Springs, CO (Romney 1,000, Obama 985, Crossroads 430, AFP 200, Priorities 155)
2. Grand Junction, CO (Obama 975, Romney 820, Crossroads 450, AFP 330)
3. Tampa, FL (Romney 920, Obama 765, Crossroads 430, AFP 223. Priorities 185)
4. Denver, CO (Obama 1,000, Romney 860, Crossroads 300, Priorities 150, AFP 140)
5. Orlando, FL (Romney 900, Obama 860, Crossroads 340, AFP 170, Priorities 150)
6. Richmond-Petersburg, VA (Obama 900, Romney 800, Crossroads 200, AFP 180, Priorities 155)
7. Roanoke-Lynchburg, VA (Obama 975, Romney 450, Crossroads 490, AFP 395)
8. Greenville-New Bern, NC (Romney 850, Obama 600, Crossroads 415, AFP 300)
9. Charlotte, NC (Romney 830, Obama 800, Crossroads 275, AFP 200)
10. Cleveland (Obama 915, Romney 650, Crossroads 200, AFP 150, Priorities 120)

*** Veepstakes alert: Reuters reported last night that Romney could be naming his VP earlier than expected. While that might be overstating things a bit (Romney’s actual quote yesterday was, "I can't give you the timeline for that. That's a decision we'll make down the road. Nor can I give you the individual"), we all might want to be on high alert between now and Monday. One would assume the Romney campaign wants the TICKET to tour the country for a week together. So, given the schedule for his foreign trip, if the pick isn’t announced by Monday… we can probably stand down until August.

*** Should Democrats be nervous about Scranton? If you’re the Obama campaign, you might be a tad nervous about the Scranton story -- that the city is making all of its municipal employees work for minimum wage to stay afloat budget-wise. After all, this is a narrative that the GOP has been pushing for the past two years (governments are going broke), and it’s Joe Biden’s hometown. Oh, and did we mention that Scranton’s DEMOCRATIC mayor is the one making these budget cuts? If you are in the GOP trying to push this government is too big and unsustainable issue, you couldn’t script the Scranton story any better. Then again, there’s another story out there -- wealthy Denise Rich is revoking her U.S. citizenship ostensibly so she can avoid paying taxes -- suggesting one of the reasons why governments are struggling right now: There isn’t enough tax revenue. Which story will have more pull with swing voters?

*** Drumbeat for Romney to release more tax returns gets louder: The drumbeat by the Obama campaign, Democrats, and liberals for Mitt Romney to release his tax returns (beyond 2010 and 2011) is getting louder and louder. The latest example is this editorial by the New York Times: “Mr. Romney has resisted all demands for more disclosure, leading to growing criticism from Democrats that he is trying to hide his fortune and his tax schemes from the public. Given the troubling suspicions about his finances, he needs to release many more returns and quickly open his books to full scrutiny.” Ask yourself this question: Which story has received more attention this week – Friday’s jobs numbers, or Romney and his taxes/offshore accounts.

*** On the trail: At 10:30 am ET from Houston, TX, Romney addresses the NAACP’s convention. We know he’ll spend a good deal of time talking about the economy. But here’s a question we have: Does he address the Mormon Church’s history concerning African Americans? Meanwhile, the Romney camp is up with this new Spanish-language TV ad featuring Romney son Craig.

*** Health care theatrics on the Hill: And over on Capitol Hill, if you missed House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi giving passionate speeches about health care, you’re in luck. Today, the House will hold a symbolic vote to repeal the federal health-care law -- again. Per NBC’s Luke Russert, the GOP-controlled House has already held 32 votes trying to repeal or rescind parts of the health-care law. And today makes 33. This particular legislation has no chance of clearing the Senate or of reaching President Obama’s desk.

*** Cornyn’s new memo: Finally, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn is up with a new memo, arguing that the past two weeks have created an opportunity for Republicans to “define the choice before voters this November.” Writes Cornyn, “In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on ObamaCare, every Democratic Senate candidate in the country will now have to explain why at a time of such great economic uncertainty they voted to ram into law a massive tax hike on middle class families and small businesses, instead of focusing on jobs.”

Countdown to GOP convention: 47 days
Countdown to Dem convention: 54 days
Countdown to Election Day: 118 days

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