Romney Set to Advance in Nevada, but Is He Falling Behind Obama?

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Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney greets workers at Western Nevada Supply on Feb. 3, 2012 in Sparks, Nevada.

Las Vegas may be the American capital of gambling, but the odds aren’t very exciting in Saturday’s Nevada Republican caucuses: Election stat guru Nate Silver projects a 100% chance that Mitt Romney will win again, dispatching Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, while solidifying Romney’s status as the near-certain Republican nominee. Yes, there are caveats. Very few actual delegates have been awarded. Super PACs mean that an Sheldon Adelson here and a Foster Friess there can help keep Romney’s rivals afloat for a while longer. And Romney keeps making comments borrowed from the script of a Dickens villain. Still, the primary circus is getting ready to leave town.

Romney must be feeling good about his path thus far. It wasn’t always smooth. But overall Romney designed and executed an impressive, corporate-style campaign plan that overcame some massive structural weaknesses, like his past moderation on social issues and the fact that his Massachusetts health care plan closely resembles Obama’s version. He established himself in early 2011 as the presumptive front-runner by methodically raising cash, building a crack campaign team, and sharpening his own speaking and debate skills. When some political analysts assumed the Tea Party would disembowel him with his health care record, Romney mounted an articulate and confident defense that parried the attacks well enough. His defense also averted a new flip-flop that would reignite the narrative that he abandons any politically unprofitable position. And all that preparation–not to mention, let’s be honest, the blessing of some inept and self-destructive primary rivals–will be on display when Nevada hands him a near-certain victory on Saturday.

But even as Romney may be exhaling in relief over what looks like a winning primary campaign, he might be developing new ulcers over the trend lines that are shaping his presumed matchup with Barack Obama in the fall. Here are three of them:

Romney has grown less popular. Some Republicans put a sunny face on the past few weeks of bitter campaigning, saying that it will leave Romney nominee tougher and more-battle tested. But the polls don’t show that. They show that he has become steadily less popular, and his unfavorability rating among independent voters had shot up 20 points between late November and late January. Nor does the primary drama seem to have energized the party’s base, as it did during the epic 2008 fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton. GOP turnout has been below 2010 levels in three of the four contests so far. The exception was South Carolina, the one primary that Gingrich won. That tells you something about the party base’s enthusiasm for Romney.

Obama has become more popular. The President’s erratic approval ratings still resemble the medical chart of a sick patient. But the patient is on the mend: In the summer and fall of last year, Obama’s Gallup approval rating sunk into the dismal high 30s, with his disapproval reaching the mid-50s. Those are not re-election numbers; indeed they’re only slightly better than Jimmy Carter’s when he finished his star-crossed presidency. As Ron Brownstein explains in this great survey of the 2012 swing state landscape, Obama is still probably just on the edge of having a plausible re-election path—thanks in part to the aforementioned popularity problems facing Romney and the Republican Party in general. If Obama’s standing rises even a little, that path starts to grow much easier. Which leads us to the next bit of bad news for Romney:

The economy is growing. Friday’s surprisingly bright job numbers were great news for Americans looking for work. They were bad news, politically speaking, for Romney’s prospects in November. Republicans face the painful dilemma of an economy whose improvement is bad for their prospects in 2012. A candidate like Romney obviously has to deny this. But it’s hardly a secret. At a Rick Santorum campaign event in Greenville, South Carolina, last month, a conservative pastor from the area confessed to me that he was “worried the economy will pick up and the jobs will come back and it’s going to be hard to beat Obama” in the fall. My colleague Michael Scherer recently explained  just what growth and income numbers political scientists believe will make the difference, and we’re not there yet.

But none of this means that Romney is a major underdog. He still starts from a strong position for a challenger to an incumbent President, with the Real Clear Politics average showing that he trails Obama by less than two points in a head-to-head polling matchup. A recent USA Today/Gallup survey found Romney tied with Obama.

And just as Obama’s numbers appear likely to improve, so could Romney’s. Unless Gingrich ties on his kamikaze headband and steers his Mitsubishi Ki-15  straight at Romney’s hull, odds are good that Mitt can repair his own image. A slower primary tempo will mean Romney can spend less time in media interviews where he’s often tripped himself up. He can run more ads promoting himself rather than attacking Gingrich.

And who knows what events may yet scramble the presidential race? A year ago, Osama bin Laden was alive, Muammar Gaddafi was still giving nutty speeches at the U.N., and Fukushima was just another town in northern Japan. The European financial crisis may yet trigger a global economic meltdown and war could break out in the Middle East. Anything can happen. But although Mitt Romney will likely take another step towards the nomination in Nevada on Saturday, he may be wondering whether Barack Obama is still one step ahead of him.