The State of the Race

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 11, 2012

Despite my clear preference for Mitt Romney, I am not blind to the fact that it takes a lot to beat a sitting president of the United States, and I have always assumed that it would be easier for Barack Obama to win because of the advantages of incumbency, and because of polls and studies showing that he has an easier path to getting 270 electoral votes than Romney does. So naturally, I like looking for reasons why I might be wrong.

I have found a number of them. The latest Investor’s Business Daily/Christian Science Monitor/TIPP Poll shows that the president’s advantage is only 2 points. Note that it included polling over the weekend; historically, weekend polling picks up more Democrats than it does Republicans, since Republicans are more likely to be out of the house during the weekend when pollsters call, while Democrats are more likely to be home. Note as well that Romney has picked up support among the Hispanic population–which the poll states straight out. Among Jewish voters, the president leads only by 59-35, which is startlingly low for a Democratic presidential candidate. As this article notes, Barack Obama got 78% of the Jewish vote four years ago, so his current level of Jewish support is quite the comedown. In 1980, Ronald Reagan got 39% of the Jewish vote; Romney is within kissing distance of achieving that.

A lot is being made of a CNN poll that has the president up by 6 percentage points over Romney. However, as noted here, CNN “massively under-samples independents while it also over-samples Democratic voters.” Specifically, the survey “includes 397 registered Republicans and 441 registered Democrats. But the survey included a total of 822 registered voters, leaving only 37 independent voters at most. The survey clearly under-sampled independent and Republican voters.” As the article also points out, “[u]nskewed, the data reveals a 53 percent to 45 percent lead for Romney.” I don’t think that Romney actually has an 8 point lead, but the finding that the CNN poll is seriously flawed is certainly worth noting. I don’t know why CNN thought that it could get away with hyping a poll so badly constructed, but either the CNN pollsters are sloppy, or they tried to pull a fast one by making a lot out of a bad poll. Either way, they ought to receive nothing but opprobrium for having done really bad work.

The great and good Jay Cost casts doubt on the claim that the president won the summer contest with Romney. Cost finds the following:

1. President Obama’s numbers were mired at or below 47 percent nationwide and the key swing states, despite the fact that he is universally known and has been running many ads to develop a lead.

2. Romney had a lead in North Carolina, while Colorado, Virginia, and Florida were effectively tied.

3. While Obama had a lead in Ohio, his numbers in that state were, on average, the lowest of all the swing states measured here except for North Carolina.

4. Obama has a larger lead in Wisconsin (48.7 to 46.7) and Michigan (47.5 to 45.3), but both states remain very tight. There was not enough polling to build a reliable average for Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire, but given Romney’s media buys and the electoral history of these states, it is a fair bet that the results there were basically similar.

5. After the convention bounce fades and after pollsters shift to likely voter screens, we should see a tightening of the race, and with it an adjustment of the conventional wisdom.

6. In terms of the national polling, Romney has regularly been even or ahead of Obama in the registered voter polls conducted by ABC News/Washington Post, Gallup and CBS News/New York Times. It stands to reason that if these polls had been likely voter instead of likely voter polls, he would have had a small national lead.

Final point: it has often been commented upon that Romney has not led at all in the summer, and that from a historical perspective that is bad news for the GOP. Untrue on both counts.

Read the whole thing. Cost doesn’t predict victory either way, but he tells us that the two candidates are likely to find themselves in a tight race again quite soon. Those findings have backing:

Last week’s Democratic National Convention helped President Obama improve his standing against Republican Mitt Romney, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, but did little to reduce voter concern about his handling of the economy.

The survey shows that the race remains close among likely voters, with Obama at 49 percent and Romney at 48 percent, virtually unchanged from a poll taken just before the conventions.

[. . .]

Obama’s relative strength emerges when all voters are asked to compare the two contenders on a series of issues and attributes. On 15 items, Obama has significant leads on eight, Romney on zero. Romney also no longer has the pre-convention advantages he held on dealing with the economy and what had been his best issue, handling the federal deficit.

The president holds double-digit leads in areas of particular focus at his party’s convention, including addressing women’s issues (Obama leads Romney by 21 percentage points), advancing the interests of the middle class (15 points), and social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage (11 points). Obama also has a fresh, albeit slender, lead on dealing with taxes.

Three new questions emphasize the president’s advantage over Romney when it comes to personal attributes. By a margin of nearly 20 points, voters are more apt to say they would like to have Obama as a dinner guest, and the president also leads by double digits as the person voters would want to take care of them if they were sick and who they say would make a more loyal friend.

But the poll also shows how hard it is to translate any of these advantages on attributes into electoral gains. Despite a feverish effort at the Democratic convention, neither Obama nor his prominent supporters were able to reverse disapproval of the president’s handling of the economy, the dominant issue in the campaign, or inspire confidence that things will pick up if he is reelected.

Compared with the survey taken before the convention, voters’ assessments of Obama’s job performance are essentially unchanged — and in vulnerable territory — with 48 percent approving and 50 percent disapproving. Also stubbornly unchanged is the negativity around his handling of the economy: Most voters — 53 percent — disapprove of his stewardship of the economy, and strongly negative views are almost twice as common as strongly positive ones.

For more than two years, a majority of voters have disapproved of Obama in this area. Those who disapprove overwhelmingly say it is because they think he is pursuing the wrong policies, not because his efforts need more time.

A plurality of voters, 43 percent, say the nation’s economy has gotten worse since Obama took office, while fewer, 32 percent, say it has improved. The rest say it has stayed about the same. Those who see no improvement largely blame the president, although just 38 percent say they think things would be better now had Romney become president in 2009.

The rhetorically powerful “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” question was a centerpiece of the Republican convention, and in the poll, more voters say they are worse off, rather than better, under Obama. But unlike those who see no progress for the national economy, those who view themselves as no better off since Obama became president are divided on whether they blame him for the lack of improvement.

Overall, voters split evenly between Romney and Obama when it comes to supporting small businesses, but Romney has exploitable advantages here. He has said repeatedly that he knows more about building businesses than Obama, and voters agree. About two-thirds say Romney understands what it takes to create a successful small business, while there is a split verdict on Obama. By 53 percent to 35 percent, more say government programs do more to hamper than bolster small businesses.

The poll finds that among registered voters, the president holds a 6 point lead. But as we all know, the likely voter measurement is the better and more accurate one. All of this leads John Podhoretz to tell the Romney campaign and its fans not to panic:

In every battleground state, including Ohio, the nonpartisan polls separating the two candidates are within the margin of error — meaning that there is no statistical difference in support between Obama and Romney. Though the pollster Scott Rasmussen has Obama up 50-45 nationally, Obama is only up 1 point in Rasmussen’s poll of 12 swing states.

Did Obama’s convention go better than Romney’s? Probably. Will it make a difference? No.

The election is in eight weeks. Over the course of those eight weeks, there will be three Obama-Romney debates (plus a Biden-Ryan one), which will have larger audiences than the conventions did, closer to the election.

Obama has two advantages Romney doesn’t: a lapdog media and the presidential megaphone — and he’ll use both to his advantage.

On the other hand, Romney now has the advantage in campaign funds and in the most basic sense: Roughly two-thirds of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction or on the wrong track. No one has ever won re-election with such numbers.

Given all this, the rational way to view the race is as essentially a tie in which Obama may be, at this moment, a little bit ahead.

As Podhoretz notes, the Romney campaign does need to do more to give voters a reason to vote for him, rather than just voting against Barack Obama. But there is no reason to believe that he can’t make necessary adjustments to his strategy in the two months before election day. Neither campaign has this race in the bag.

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