I’ve spent a lot of time here lately raising doubts about the “referendum” hypothesis of this presidential election: that swing voters are in the process of or have already taken their own temperatures as to how they feel about life under Barack Obama, and once that process ends, the outcome will be determined with little or no regard to anything Mitt Romney says, does or represents.

But the more nuanced (or honest) advocates of the “referendum” hypothesis will admit that even under their model, it’s a two-phase process, and that once swing voters have made their judgment about the incumbent, the challenger must cross some invisible threshold of credibility, and if he struggles to do so, the election can turn into much more of a “choice” than a “referendum.”

That’s why Sean Trende’s latest column for RCP, which essentially warns Team Romney they are failing so far to navigate “Phase 2,” is well worth reading. Sean looks at the most recent Pew survey and finds that while swing voters may be prepared to “fire” the incumbent, they aren’t sold on the challenger just yet because he refuses to tell them much about himself:

[A]mong independents — who are almost certainly the lion’s share of those who have not yet formed a strong opinion of Romney — 42 percent say they want to know more about his record as governor, 37 percent want to know more about his record as CEO of Bain Capital, and 35 percent want to know more about his tax returns. Just 21 percent of independents want to know more about his wealth, 19 percent want to know more about his family and upbringing, and 16 percent want to know more about his religious beliefs….

Complicating matters for the Republican’s campaign, the president is at 46 percent in head-to-heads in the RCP average. In the past six presidential elections, this has represented the floor for the parties (in terms of two-party vote share). In other words, the low-to-medium hanging fruit for Republicans are already either voting for Romney or are undecided. Absent a major economic collapse, Obama’s poll numbers simply aren’t likely to drop any lower.

So voters are at Step 2 of the referendum model. They are evaluating Romney. In this situation, the Republicans are doing the exact wrong thing by making 90 percent of their ads attacks on Obama. Although voters always say this but rarely mean it, they really do want Romney to go positive. They are interested in learning about his accomplishments (or lack thereof), especially during his term as governor.

But we all understand why Romney hasn’t “gone positive,” don’t we? Just look at the things Pew’s independents say they need to know more about: Mitt’s gubernatorial record is a snake pit for him, featuring accomplishments that he dare not talk about for fear of offending his party “base” and/or exposing flip-flops. He clearly doesn’t want to talk about his taxes. And whether or not you think the attacks on Bain Capital have “worked” so far, they have certainly neutralized that part of Mitt’s life as a clear positive. So what’s he going to “go positive” about? The Ryan Budget? His rickety policy proposals on taxes? His virtually non-existent jobs platform? Do tell.

Trende thinks Team Romney’s fooling itself if it imagines he can get away with campaigning the way it has up until now, with a ghost candidate:

[T]hese are parts of his biography that simply must be filled in if Romney wants to win, along with his activities turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics. (Does anyone outside of the political world even know about that?) If Romney can do this, he’ll have an excellent shot at winning this race. It might not even be close. But if he can’t, he will probably become the first presidential challenger in modern history to pass Step 1 of the referendum model, but fail Step 2.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.