Polls these days show an unusually large degree of volatility. In the nine most recent polls covered by RealClearPolitics.com, President Obama’s job approval ratings have ranged from 44 percent to 53 percent, the highest any national poll has shown since last May, soon after Osama bin Laden was killed. In general, in election matchups between Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the range is from a tie in the new Gallup/USA Today national survey to a 10-point lead for Obama. When matched up against former Sen. Rick Santorum, the range has been from a Santorum lead of three points to Obama being up by 11 points.
In such situations, the first thing to do is to knock out the high and low polls and average the rest; it’s the easiest way to provide a control for the inevitable outlier surveys. In terms of Obama’s job approval, the remaining seven averaged 47 percent. It should be noted, though, that the three highest, all 50 percent, were from two weeks ago. Going into Election Day, an incumbent wants to see a job approval rating of 50 percent or higher. But one with 48 or 49 percent approval can still win by a nose. President George W. Bush did this, with a 48 percent job approval rating in the final Gallup Poll before his narrow, 51 percent-to-48 percent win over John Kerry in 2004.
In the Obama-Romney trial heats, the average of the seven represented a 7-point lead for the incumbent. When up against Santorum, it was just under an 8-point lead. Trial heat figures this far out do not have as good a track record of indicating election outcomes as later ones. The takeaway from these numbers is that the electability premium that Romney had over Santorum has, for now, virtually evaporated. It’s not to say there isn’t a lot more for Democrats to exploit running against Santorum than against Romney. But the natural edge is largely gone, with very different results from a few months ago—though admittedly, Santorum was an unknown then.
Elections and public attitudes toward elections tend to have a lot of moving parts. Now, not unexpectedly, there are a lot of conflicting dynamics at work. Keep in mind that 90-plus percent of the voters who consider themselves Republicans will vote for the GOP nominee, regardless. The same can be said for self-described Democrats voting for their candidate. The volatility comes with the third or so of voters who consider themselves independents. Pollsters say that these independents are seriously cross-pressured.
Most independents like Obama personally, but are underwhelmed by his performance so far. Some are disappointed; some disagree with some of his decisions or priorities. With Obama’s job approval ratings among independents running at just 45 percent—well under the 52 percent of the vote he received from independents in 2008—that disenchantment is clear. Obama clearly benefitted for a time from the now-21 weeks of more positive than negative economic news, as reported by the ISI Group. But at the same time, gasoline prices are at an unprecedented high for this time of year, more than a dollar higher than this season’s average over the last six years. Gasoline prices also almost always go up over the spring and early summer.
Not only does the “pain at the pump” politically hurt an incumbent, but with so many Americans living on pinched budgets these days, money spent filling up their tanks is money not spent in stores. The negative economic impact of high gasoline prices is indisputable. Thus, the dynamic that drove Obama’s job approval rating up this year is now threatened by higher gasoline prices. In the absence of a resolution of tensions in the Mideast and specifically Iran, falling gas prices and climbing ratings aren’t likely to happen.
At the same time, these independents feel increasingly estranged from Republicans. GOP presidential contenders are falling over themselves to curry favor with the party’s conservative base and tea party activists. These independents are cooling toward the party they supported by an 18-point margin in the 2010 election as well.
There is no question: Republicans aren’t looking so good at the moment. But just as things looked pretty bleak for Obama and Democrats four and eight months ago, what is far more relevant is how things look four, and most of all, eight months from now, heading into Election Day. Republicans currently suffer from self-inflicted wounds. President Obama and Democrats are hurt by factors largely beyond their control. Those who are acting as if this election is over are being very premature. But, at the same time, each side has plenty to worry about as they look forward to the next eight months.
This article appears in the Feb. 28, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.