The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows President Obama widening his lead over Mitt Romney among registered voters from 3 points in June to 6 points in July, 49 percent to 43 percent. Among a somewhat smaller group of voters in the dozen battleground states, Obama’s lead is 8 points, 49 percent to 41 percent. But—and this is a very big but—among high-interest voters considered most likely to go to the polls (those who rate their interest at either 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10), Romney leads by 2 points, 48 percent to 46 percent in the entire national sample.
Looking through the 29-page questionnaire and results, it’s pretty remarkable how little has changed across the span of seven NBC/WSJ polls conducted this calendar year by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, two of the best in the business. Although the economy has gotten demonstrably worse since the start of 2012, Romney has made considerably less progress than one might have guessed.
At the beginning of this year, the U.S. was coming off the fourth quarter of 2011 with the economy improving to a 3.0 percent growth rate in the gross domestic product—not blisteringly high, but pretty good. In April, the numbers for the first quarter of 2012 showed that the economy had slowed to a 1.9 percent GDP growth rate and that progress on reducing unemployment had stalled. Since then, the economic numbers have gotten worse. Second-quarter statistics, due out on July 27, are expected to show a 1.5 percent GDP growth rate, but few people would be surprised if they’re worse than that.
What seems to be holding Romney back are voters’ personal feelings toward him, which are more negative than those faced by any of the past six nonincumbent nominees. Only Bill Clinton’s 30 percent positive, 38 percent negative rating at this point in the 1992 election cycle was worse than Romney’s 35 percent positive and 40 percent negative numbers among all registered voters. Among independent voters, Romney has a 35 percent positive, 30 percent negative rating. Obama has a 49 percent positive, 43 percent negative rating among all registered voters and a 42 percent positive and 43 percent negative rating among independent voters.
In my judgment, Romney’s poor numbers go back to his campaign’s obsession with talking only about the economy and not attempting to define who Romney is as a person, as a way to build trust and strong positive personal feelings toward their candidate. The Romney camp has yet to run what I would call a personal-positive ad, a biographical or values-based commercial portraying him as the kind of person whom people might want to vote for, someone with values that they would want to see in the Oval Office.
In the three NBC/WSJ polls conducted in May, June, and July, Obama had 47 percent of the vote in May and June, and 49 percent in July; Romney received 43 percent in May and July, and 44 percent in June.
Pollsters Hart and McInturff combined the undecided voters from the three surveys for a special analysis, finding that just 18 percent of the 241 undecideds thought the country was headed in the right direction; 68 percent felt that it was on the wrong track—indicating a profoundly pessimistic group of voters. Obama’s job-approval rating, which averaged 48 percent among all registered voters over those three months, was just 25 percent among the undecided, with a 57 percent disapproval rating. On his handling of the economy, the president’s approval rating among this group was just 24 percent, with 68 percent disapproving. A mere 20 percent of the undecided said they believed that the economy will get better over the next 12 months, while 29 percent felt that it would get worse and 47 percent thought that it would stay the same.
As horrific as those findings are, they are tempered slightly by the fact that among those undecided voters, Romney’s numbers were even worse than Obama’s: 16 percent positive, 44 percent negative, to the president’s 29 percent positive, 42 percent negative. Focus groups have shown that independent and undecided voters know that Romney is a rich and successful businessman, and they might know that he is a Mormon. When pushed about positive attributes, some volunteer that because he is so rich and successful, he probably is smart and understands the economy. But they find it hard to offer anything positive about Romney as a person, anything that would suggest they see him as a man of character and worthy of trust. This is the price Romney is paying for allowing Obama an open running field in terms of defining his opponent.
I have no doubt that this election is going to be close, very close. Close elections can obviously go either way. With this economy, one might expect Romney to have a somewhat clearer lead nationally and be ahead in more than one (North Carolina) of the 12 or so battleground states.
This article appears in the July 28, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.