President Obama’s first three and a half years in office have been fraught with economic stagnation unseen for decades. The signature achievement from his first term, health care reform, remains unpopular with the American people (although before it’s been fully implemented). And his approval rating, while even over the last two months, was underwater for most of 2011.
Yet last week, Quinnipiac University released three polls showing Obama ahead in two major swing states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and trailing by a single point to former Massachusetts Gov. and likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney in Florida. Why?
“This is an election about more than the economy — it’s about leadership,” Michael Dimock, associate director of research for the Pew Research Center told TPM. “While he’s [President Obama] been a divisive president, he has built up a certain amount of public trust. Romney is still unknown to many people, and what people have heard hasn’t been particularly positive.”
The Quinnipiac numbers revealed an interesting trend — in Florida, when pollsters asked voters who would be better on the economy, Romney had a nine point edge. In the general election match up, he bested Obama by a single point. In Ohio, Romney only had a four point lead on who was better to handle the nation’s economy, which wasn’t enough to get by Obama in the state, who had a two point advantage overall. And in Pennsylvania, Obama had a one point lead on the economy, which turned into a healthy eight percent margin in the head-to-head.
The breakdown? Gov. Romney has to lead strongly on the economy if he plans to pick up any of the states Obama won in 2008 — simply running even or outpacing the president by a few points doesn’t look to be sufficient. There are a few factors for this — the more tangible issue of Romney’s favorability rating (a historically low level for presidential candidates in the modern era), but he’s also running against an opponent in Obama who has excelled at many parts of the job so far. And Dimock pointed to another factor.
“If you think elections are just determined by economic conditions, there’s no way that Obama can win,” he said. “But the counterargument is that Romney as a Republican couldn’t win the election either, because the party is so disfavored right now. Romney is taking over as the leader of the party, but he hasn’t yet moved ahead of it.”
Dimock’s colleague and president of the Pew Research Center, Andrew Kohut, wrote a piece in the New York Times explaining this phenomenon, saying a victory for either man will “defy modern political history.”
One of the oldest axioms about presidential elections is that they are referendums on the times. And for the 69 percent of the public who continue to say they are dissatisfied with national conditions, these are bad times. That is very bad news for Obama. However, Americans don’t back candidates they don’t like or trust. This is Romney’s challenge.
There is no track record on how voters will resolve such conflicting pressures. Core Republicans and Democrats are certainly likely to rally to their party’s standard bearer, but where the swing voters are headed in November is very unclear given the political burdens both candidates carry.
But as Quinnipiac shows, at the moment it looks like voters are being given more reasons to stick with Obama absent an overpowering argument from Romney on the economy. “I think you can explain based on the personal side of this,” Dimock told TPM. “We are electing a person, not just an issue.”
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.