Mitt Romney is reeling and on the ropes, a mere fortnight into the US Presidential election campaign, with his continued refusal to reveal a full run of tax returns prompting a storm of criticism.

Romney, whose worth is estimated to be about $300 million, has released the past two years of tax returns. But most candidates for major office release a 12-year run of tax returns, to show an overall pattern of activity, and to prove that no big scores are being hidden in odd years.

The 12-year release has become a tradition in US politics — and unfortunately for Romney, the man who instituted it was George Romney, Mitt’s dad, who ran for the Republican nomination in 1968, as a moderate candidate.

George’s contribution to political openness has become a nightmare for Mitt. The issue was kicked into touch by a Boston Globe report last week, which showed that Mitt’s connection to Bain Capital, his corporate repackaging outfit, continued into 2002, and did not finish in 1999, as he claimed.

From ’99 on, Romney was running the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and so continued management of Bain presented a potential conflict of interest. By 2002, Romney was also running for governor of Massachusetts, and there are discrepancies between his electoral declarations and his corporate filings to the SEC.

But the Bain Capital issue has proved to be a lure for the main game, which is to put Romney on the hook for his tax returns. And what a hook it is. His continued refusal to release them means that he will have to answer that question first and always for as long as he holds the line.

But as he and the Democrats know, his returns are a gold-mine of his fantastically complex financial arrangements — offshore accounts, trusts, overseas investments, dubious shareholdings, houses, stuff.

Team Romney tried to create a distraction from the issue with obvious leaks about VP choices — in particular, the suggestion that Condoleezza Rice might be a choice. But that only lasted 48 hours, and any effect it might have had was quickly ruined by a Romney camp spokesperson who announced that the Mittster had “retroactively resigned” from Bain, another one of those unique gaffes the Romney campaign turns out like Detroit once turned out deuce coupes.

Romney doubled down on that by demanding an apology from Obama for accusations — from Obama spokespeople — that he, Romney, had committed felonies in making false disclosures. The Obama team’s response was this ad. Which the Romney campaign promptly, lamely, replied to, by mocking Obama’s singing of a few bars, pitch-perfect, of Al Green’s I’m So In Love With You — a moment that had every woman in America educated above a bachelor’s degree looking for a bathroom to change their panties — and probably bought Obama a two-week pass on criticism for drone wars.

By the beginning of this week, Romney was in trouble from the Right establishment, with the National Review running an editorial entitled “Release the Returns“. Meanwhile, other GOP figures with axes to grind, such as Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, have piled on to urge Romney, in the friendliest possible manner of course, to release the returns.

The Huffington Post revealed leaks from Bain executives, which suggested that Romney had never believed he would have to release his returns, and had run for President on that basis.

Whether the issue is making any hay for the Democrats is difficult to discern. In the past few weeks the polls were trending away from Obama, with Romney ahead in the daily tracking by 2-4%. They have now started to return, with a pretty consistent 2% lead.

Furthermore in the battleground states, Obama has retained a solid lead for the past year, as good news and bad news has come and gone. In the states won by Obama in 2008, only Indiana will definitely go to Romney, and only North Carolina is leaning towards him. Attempts to put some solid Democrat states into the mix — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire — are largely wishful thinking, with one exception.

Of the true swing states, New Mexico and Nevada are firmly in the Obama camp. Iowa and Florida are anyone’s game, running dead even. That leaves Virginia, Ohio and Colorado as the key battleground states — with 13, 20 and nine votes exactly. But even here, Obama has an average 3% lead in all three states.

Give Romney Indiana’s 11 and North Carolina’s 15, Romney would need another 71 votes. Give him the luck of the draw, and Florida (27) and Iowa (7), he would need another 37. That means he has to grab all of Ohio, Colorado and Virginia, for a total of 42 votes to push him over the line.

The only other path to victory is to draw the Western pseudo-swing states back in — but they are out of reach. Alternatively, he could try and take Michigan, where Obama has only a 1.7% lead. That, together with Ohio, or together with Colorado and Virginia, would push him over the line.

But the relative confidence of the Obama camp can be explained by reversing the luck. Say Romney loses Florida and Iowa, even by a mere 1000 votes each. Then he would have to get Indiana (11), North Carolina (15), Ohio (20), Virginia (13), Colorado (9) — and Michigan (17), and then an even further outlier such as Wisconsin (10) and New Hampshire (4). Alternatively, a real outlier instead of Michigan-Wisconsin, would be Pennsylvania (21), plus Wisconsin (10), or Nevada (5) and New Hampshire (4).

That is a huge ask — because such a campaign has to be all things to all people — protectionist and populist in the northern states, consumer-oriented in the upper south and west, libertarian and socially liberal in New Hampshire, religious conservative in Pennsylvania, and so on.

In a landslide, none of this matters much. A brace of states get swamped by a voter wave, and they all go together. But a landslide is slipping from Romney’s grasp, as the mud and arrows stick, and when the vote is close, the electoral college system creates an entirely different profile, substantially favouring the incumbent.

This is not merely a question of different demographic profiles, but of simple mathematical variation — something few people understand (it was certainly beyond Greg Sheridan in his calculus of Romney’s chances today). Inevitably a sheer randomness effect takes over — a snowstorm here, a local candidate scandal there. Obama can afford three or four of those, even in bigger states. Romney can barely survive one or two.

So even if every state is on a knife edge of evens, the advantage lies with Obama. And it is on that basis that his campaign is calculating. Romney will have to hope for some disastrous economic numbers in the next three months, a foreign policy disaster, or a Kenyan birth certificate, to even up the odds.

Or he could steal Ohio. Given the modus operandi of Bain Capital, it wouldn’t be a stretch.

Peter Fray

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