A series of polls released late Wednesday made clear that the economy remains the most constant and influential variable in the 2012 presidential campaign, helping to explain the strategies and posture of both Mitt Romney and President Obama.
Though Romney has been besieged by millions in negative ads questioning his tenure at Bain Capital and whether he should release more tax returns, the presumptive Republican nominee remains basically even versus the president in polls. The reason? Three new polls suggest that voters' optimism about the state of the economy has slid, making Obama more vulnerable to efforts that seek to turn the campaign into a referendum on his economic management.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney
Thirty-nine percent of registered voters said in the New York Times/CBS poll released yesterday that they approve of Obama's handling of the economy, versus 55 percent who disapprove. As a matter of comparison, voters disapproved of Obama's economic management by a tighter margin — 44 percent approving, 48 percent disapproving — in the April version of the same poll.
A separate poll conducted for NPR also found that voters disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy, a margin that widens among voters surveyed in 12 battleground states. In those states, 52 percent said they disapproved of Obama's handling of the economy, versus 45 percent who approve.
"The economy is the albatross around the president’s neck. The Romney people are smart in focusing on the economy, because that is the softest point in the president’s campaign," said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. "They’re running a campaign based on the issue of the economy, not based on who you should trust with the economy. Those are two different questions – closely related – but different questions."
The past three months has seen a series of lackluster monthly jobs reports, and no real dent has been made in the unemployment rate. Though these figures don't entirely explain the souring public mood toward the economy, they suggest that the economy remains an albatross for Obama — one that has weighed more heavily on the Democratic president as the think of the campaign has onset.
Obama had opened up a lead over Romney earlier this year in the aftermath of a bruising Republican primary and four straight jobs reports showing that the economy had added jobs to the tune of six figures each month. What changed? In April, May and June, the economy added 68,000, 77,000 and 80,000 jobs respectively.
Presented with those figures in the June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 52 percent of Americans said those numbers weren't a reason for optimism.
And as if to underscore the point, the CBS/NYT poll found that a full 93 percent of voters said they thought the economy and unemployment were either an extremely or very important issue in this election.
The jobs report and its impact on the unemployment rate aren't the sole factor in evolving political opinion. Romney has spent much of his time on the campaign trail assailing the president's management of the economy, and beyond that, Obama has introduced few initiatives to improve the jobs situation aside from the defunct American Jobs Act he first proposed last summer. Moreover, Republicans gleefully pointed on Wednesday to the fact that the jobs council Obama himself empaneled hasn't met in 6 months.
But a Fox News poll contained one of the starkest reversals in Obama's numbers, adding to the evidence that voters have soured in recent months.
Thirty-seven percent of registered voters in that poll said that Obama has made the economy better as a product of his policies, and 49 percent says he's made it worse. In March, voters slightly favored Obama in the same poll, 44-42 percent. A 2-point margin for the president turned into a 12-point margin just four months.
Nonetheless, the race remains largely deadlocked.
Romney leads Obama 47 to 46 percent among registered voters in the NYT/CBS. Obama leads 45-41 percent in a Fox News poll, and he leads 47-45 percent in the NPR poll. (NPR's battleground state sample found Romney and Obama tied, at 46 percent apiece.)
It's tough to imagine, though, a scenario in which Obama could do much to dramatically redirect the trajectory of the economy. And voters' perception about the economy is likely to harden by the end of the summer, if history is any guide.
It explains the Romney campaign's zen-like handling of the questioning -- even from conservatives -- of its strategy. The Republican's campaign has long regarded discussing anything but the economy as mostly a distraction, keeping its focus squarely on Obama's economic record in hopes of transforming the campaign into a referendum on just that.
It also helps to distill the Obama campaign's need to go on offense versus Romney, looking to poison swing state voters on Romney's chief qualification as a turnaround expert and experienced businessman.
But the NYT/CBS poll contained one of the bleakest numbers for Obama. Fully 45 percent of registered voters said his policies are not improving the economy, and probably never will.
And in an election in which the economy is the top issues, that sort of bleakness could prove to be Romney's greatest advantage.
The NYT/CBS poll was conducted July 11-16 and has a three percent margin of error.
The NPR poll was conducted July 9-12 by Democratic pollster Democracy Corps and Republican pollster Resurgent Republic. It has a 3.1 percent margin of error for all voters, and a 4.56 percent margin of error for the sample of voters in battleground states.
The Fox News poll was conducted July 15-17 by Democratic pollster Anderson Robbins Research and Republican pollster Shaw & Company research; it has a three percent margin of error.