The Republican presidential nomination is essentially settled. A wave of polls, focus groups, and other survey research is taking the temperature of the race, with certain clear themes emerging.
Even though presumptive nominee Mitt Romney has spent the last year and a half almost exclusively focused on currying favor with his party’s conservative base—quite often antagonizing other voters, including independents and swing voters—this race is very close. The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows a lead for President Obama of 3.1 percentage points, 47.6 percent to 44.5 percent. The Huffpost Pollster estimate is 2.2 percentage points, 47 percent to 44.8 percent.
In a separate and slightly older national survey of likely voters by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for the Democratic Corps/Women’s Voices and Women’s Vote Action Fund, taken March 29-April 4, Obama led by a single point, 48 percent to 47 percent. Presumably, as Romney shifts his messaging toward swing voters, other polls may begin to look like this one.
Last week, Democratic pollster Peter Hart conducted one of his periodic focus groups, sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. After listening to more than two hours of the conversation, I concluded that most of this Tampa, Fla.-based group of Republicans and independents who frequently support GOP candidates will ultimately support Romney. Yet they do not feel at all personally bonded to the former Massachusetts governor; indeed, most were set to vote against Obama rather than for Romney. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t like Romney. They clearly felt that they didn’t know him, and that he owes his front-runner status more to his opponents’ shortcomings and to ads by and for Romney attacking his rivals. These voters said they didn’t have enough information to support him outright. The lack of a personal connection to Romney was striking.
The good news for Romney: The general-election campaign ads introducing him to voters and aiming to drive up his popularity with swing voters will undoubtedly shore up his standing among Republicans, too. But the focus group underscores the necessity for the Romney campaign to make him a more multidimensional figure, to warm up his image, and to make him seem a more compelling personality.
Conversations with prominent Republican strategists who are not officially connected to the Romney camp expand on that idea. These discussions suggest that an image of being simply a competent “fix-it” guy who can manage the economy isn’t enough. Romney needs to establish a positive vision for the country. He needs to move beyond reciting patriotic songs, as he is prone to do in speeches.
Another theme evident from polling is that most voters still like Obama personally. A clear majority of independents still like him. Even about half of the Republicans in the University of Pennsylvania focus group liked him or had something positive to say about him.
Some analysts mistakenly think that personal feelings and favorability ratings are the same as job-approval ratings. Although it is always better for a candidate to be liked than disliked, for an incumbent the perception of performance and effectiveness matters far more than likability. Voters didn’t turn sour on President Ford in 1976; they just voted for change. Independent voters like President Obama, but the question is whether they think he has done a good job.
Republicans should take note that some of the personal attacks on Obama strain credibility. Attacks on his effectiveness are less likely to do so.
Watch Obama’s job-approval rating in the coming days to see if there is a reaction to the retreat of gasoline prices. Last week, his approval rating ticked up 1 point in the weekly Gallup compilation from 47 percent to 48 percent, and the three-day average moved up to 50 percent. Only once, March 28-30, had the president’s three-day approval touched 50 percent since early June, just after Osama bin Laden’s death. One roll could easily be statistical noise, but that it happened just after gasoline prices dropped a nickel could be worth noting.
The Irish-based website Intrade, an online predictions market, gives Obama a 60 percent chance of reelection. The survey research, though, doesn’t bear out that bullish forecast. An Obama victory is contingent upon another extraordinary level of turnout among minority and younger voters. He also needs to win close to a majority of independent voters. Independents, however, still look at the president with grave skepticism and have bad memories from his first two years in office. So far, little evidence indicates a reprise of 2008’s enthusiasm among minority and younger voters. (The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicated a distinct lack of enthusiasm among younger voters.)
Obama’s visits to college campuses this week are just a down payment on his efforts to rebuild the coalition that catapulted him to the Oval Office. Reigniting young voters’ enthusiasm might be easier than winning back independents, who are looking for a more meaningful economic recovery before they are willing to rejoin the Obama team.
This article appears in the April 24, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.