President Obama’s performance in head-to-head matchups with his Republican competitors, especially Mitt Romney, have dramatically improved in recent weeks. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, Obama went from being tied with Romney in trial heats last fall to holding an eight-point lead in the fresh batch of data released this week. The turnaround was even faster in the New York Times/CBS News poll, which found Obama trailing Romney by two points in January and up by six this week. The reasons might not be immediately apparent.
Presidential approval has not seen huge gains since the end of last year: Gallup tracking data show Obama’s job approval rating very close to where it was in mid-October of 2011—and in mid-October of 2010 for that matter—dipping just under water-level in the mid-40s. There are a few surveys that show something closer to 50, but national approval figures may actually overstate the President’s position. Michael Scherer recently illustrated the degree to which Obama’s approval ratings in key swing states lagged behind national trends in 2011, while worse unemployment numbers dogged those same core states. So how can we square those facts with what we’re seeing in the head-to-head polls?
For one, swing states may decide presidential elections, but their economic health does not. As George Washington political science professor John Sides explains:
First, Thomas Holbrook found that state-level economies—measured with unemployment or changes in real per capita income—had no relationship to presidential election outcomes in the states in 1960-84, once measures of the national economy were taken into account. Second, Daniel Eisenberg and Jonathan Ketchum’s study of the 1972-2000 elections also finds that the national economy outweighs the effect of state and county economies.
In this context, Obama’s brighter general election prospects begin to make sense. Voters might not feel like he’s doing a much better job, but they are beginning to feel better about the direction of the country economically, a dynamic which favors the incumbent. Three-quarters of Americans still believe the economy is in bad shape, according to the NYT/CBS poll, but the remaining 23% who say things are good is the highest level since last spring. More importantly, the number of Americans who think the economy is improving—absolutes are less important in politics than a feeling of positive movement—has grown even faster: 34% in the same survey, up six percentage points in a month. Gallup data also show the highest economic confidence level in a year, and the crucial outlook number overtook appraisals of current conditions in December, a trendline that holds promise for the current occupants of the White House:
The second piece of this puzzle is Mitt Romney. Romney has long been the strongest general-election player in the GOP field, but the savage primary fight is beginning to take a toll. Romney’s unfavorability rating has reached its highest mark—49% in the Pew poll—since his debut on the national stage in 2007. The number of voters who perceived him as “untrustworthy” leaped from 32% a month prior to 45% this week. The number of independents who said he was prepared to be President dropped 10 percentage points to 48%, and their candidate preference swung narrowly to Obama. Where Romney once out-performed the likes of Rick Santorum in these trial heats, the latest polls found only a one-point difference between the two.
It could all shift again. The GOP race has taken plenty of hairpin turns already and when (or if) Romney secures his track to the nomination, there will be a period of calm in which he can work to restore his standing with independents or drag Obama’s numbers back down. Presidential candidates in years past have been scarred by primary scrapes only to appear unblemished for the general election. Economic confidence is still low, the recovery may darken again under the cloud of Europe and the President faces a daunting re-election task either way. But for this snapshot in time, a weakened Romney and a strengthened economy make for the best outlook Obama’s had in quite some time.
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