To Hawthorn Friends & Family —
I wanted to get Steve Lombardo’s latest analysis to you before tonight’s debate. How the candidates perform is as important as it’s ever been in a debate. Both need to “win,” especially Gov. Romney . . . and both have a lot to lose, especially President Obama. Of course, far, far more important than their performances is how the media/bloggers/talking heads characterize who “won” or “lost” the debate. That will set the tone, it not for the next week of the campaign, at least for the media coverage of it.
Steve makes two points that seem to me worth emphasizing:
[ol][li]It IS all about the economy! And I have long believed there are votes that pollsters are missing that are going to be cast for Romney. I think there are voters – some responding, if asked, that they are undecided, others “soft” favorable/unfavorable – who will go into the polls not hating Obama . . . not thinking he is evil, out to destroy capitalism, Christianity and America . . . but suffering economically, not seeing the situation improving . . . and, without any strong feeling against Obama personally, are going to conclude, “what we’ve been doing isn’t working, so I’m going to try the other guy.”
I have never thought this “quiet” last-minute vote-switching/deciding from Obama to Romney was driven by intense passion, more resigned disappointment . . . just “let’s try something different; maybe it will work.” And for a long time, I had thought this would be enough to carry Romney to victory.
Two things — beyond the national and swing state polling – now make me question that. First, as Steve notes, there is a sense of improvement about the economy. Second, voters marginally believe Obama would do better addressing economic issues; certainly there is no massive advantage for Romney on the economy.
But, for me, those are questions. I’m not sure how uniform across the electorate the improving view of the is. Is there still lingering doubt among the economic underclass, those left behind in this slow recovery? Will they vote, and will they vote based on that? Will this be the “silent vote” the pollsters miss that keeps this race razor-close, perhaps produces an upset? Maybe . . . but not if Obama’s margins hold/grow in the swing states, especially among women (and he’s doing surprisingly well among Blue Collar women) and Independents . . . and not if minorities turn out to vote (given yesterday’s report of Obama’s leading Romney among Hispanics 70-25).
“Romney’s unfavorable rating is an albatross around his neck.”I can’t improve on those words of Steve’s. I am mystified how an apparently bright, decent, able man, who last served in public office as governor of a small New England state six years ago, can have a net negative approval rating. Despite all the vicious hatred of Obama, voters – as a whole – dislike Romney more. There’s something about him that just isn’t appealing, isn’t likeable. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising in a candidate who for months trailed Bachman, Perry, Cain, Gingrich and then Santorum (a group Roger Simon characterized as “not a field of candidates, but a therapy group”).
It’s hard for me to see how he does the job he needs to do tonight attacking Obama’s performance/promises and at the same time does the job he needs to do to make himself more appealable.
We’ll watch the debate tonight with more than usual interest . . . and will try to sort out in the next couple of days both the performances AND the reporting on the performances . . . and what both mean for the remaining month of the campaign.
The Most Important Week of the Campaign
The Romney campaign appears to have righted itself in the last week, going on the offensive over Libya and working to reframe the race as a choice between two distinctly different governing philosophies. The President and his team are playing defense on Benghazi while continuing to assail the Governor’s Massachusetts record. While the President still holds a lead in key battleground states, the national polling data is showing some tightening. With both the first presidential debate (tomorrow night in Denver) and the release of the latest unemployment numbers (Friday morning) we have entered the most important week of the presidential election. The next five days will go a long way toward determining the outcome on November 7th.
The following is our up-to-the-minute take on the current state of the election and some thoughts on key battleground states:
- It’s still all about the economy . According to a recent CBS News/NYT poll, voters identified unemployment and jobs as this election’s most important issue (43%). Second is the federal deficit at 14%. Yes, there is something to be said about people acclimating to the “new normal” of stagnation but they still want something done to improve the situation. Voters are starting to believe that the President is performing better on the economy because they think things are improving slightly, not because people are fatigued on the issue. A recent NBC/WSJ poll shows that the percentage of voters who believe that the economy will “get better” in the next 12 months improved from 28% in July to 42% in mid-September.
As the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Dalton said at a forum we both spoke at yesterday in Brussels: “The President is not doing better in spite of the economy, he is doing better because of the economy.” Simply put, voters are slightly more optimistic. As we said a year ago, it’s not the unemployment rate that’s important, it’s the trend to the unemployment rate. That is why the jobs data on Friday is so critical. If the economy added more than 100k jobs in August and the unemployment rate ticks down a bit, it will be a huge boost for the President.
- This election is unlikely to turn on Benghazi. To be sure, the Administration is vulnerable here but unless voter salience increases it will have only a marginal impact on the race. According to the aforementioned CBS/NYT poll, only 6% of voters cite the “situation in the Middle East” as the most important issue facing the country today. Romney may be able to overtake President Obama in terms of their perceived ability to handle foreign affairs, but unless it is matched with a similar result on handling the economy it will have little impact on the election.
- Europe, however, is a problem for Obama. Yesterday, we learned that unemployment in the 17-member euro zone rose to 11.4%, the highest level since the introduction of the euro in 1999. Team Obama has been hoping to avoid a full blown euro zone crisis…at least until after the election. While the debt crisis is probably on hold, a further weakening of the European economy may have an effect on U.S. markets.
- The President’s job approval numbers are now in the re-elect zone. The latest Gallup poll has President Obama’s approval rating at 50%. While this is slightly behind President G. W. Bush’s September 2004 numbers, it is well ahead of where he was six months ago (42%). As you can see from the below chart the two Presidents to lose reelection-President Carter and President G.H.W. Bush-had an approval rating well below 50% in November. If the President’s approval rating stays at or near 50%, he has a strong likelihood of winning reelection.
- Romney’s unfavorable rating is an albatross around his neck. Perhaps more than anything else, the debates have to improve Governor Romney’s likeability. Yes, he has to contrast his vision of the future from the President’s but he desperately needs to convince swing voters that he cares about people like them. Romney’s unfavorable rating exceeds his favorability score by four points; quite simply, he is unelectable with an underwater favorability rating. The debates have to change that or he will lose in November.
- Expect a Romney debate bounce. Others have made this point, but simply standing on the same stage as the President will help Romney’s cause. And a recent ABC poll showed that most Americans expect the President to “win” the Wednesday debate; even if Romney fights to a draw, he’ll be seen as exceeding expectations. While that won’t be enough to win the election, it will help his poll numbers over the next week.
One thing that has caught our attention is the state of the generic congressional ballot. Historically, this has been a pretty good predictor of the composition of the electorate on Election Day (if not the outcome itself). According to a Real Clear Politics analysis of past elections, their final average of all generic congressional ballot snapshots came awfully close to the actual vote. As a reminder, Republicans had a seven-point advantage in 2010 (52-R, 45-D), while Democrats enjoyed a 10-point advantage (43-R, 53-D) in 2008. This year RCP has the generic congressional ballot about even . In 2004, when Bush was reelected, Republicans had a two-point GCB advantage (49-47). For Republicans, being even with Democrats on the generic ballot is a positive development. This, combined with the enthusiasm gap that the GOP still enjoys, does offer some hope for those looking for a Romney turnaround.
Our assessment of the Electoral College remains basically unchanged with Obama at 247 lean or strong electoral votes and Romney with 191. Our sense is that eight states are in play: NV, CO, IA, OH, NH, VA, NC and FL. While Ohio and Florida have far larger EV contributions, New Hampshire has to be most troubling for Team Romney. The Governor has a summer house there and is well known to Granite State voters, yet he has only led Obama in two of the 17 polls conducted there since January. A recent WMUR/University of NH poll had the President ahead by 15 points. While clearly an outlier, it suggests that the state is quickly moving away from Governor Romney.
Thanks again to Pete Ventimiglia, Kelsey Cohen and Allison Quigley for their insights and contributions to the Election Monitor.
Please note that the author was an advisor to the Romney for President campaign in 2008, but is not affiliated with any campaign in 2012.