Add in the respondents who said that Obama was already significantly improving things, and nearly three in five voters expressed some optimism about the administration’s policies.
“People don’t just take one data point in a black box to the polls,” says Ben LaBolt, Obama’s campaign spokesman. “Context matters.”
Romney’s team acknowledges that voters care less about the raw numbers or the percentages of unemployed workers and more about whether the figures are going up or down from month to month. Still, the campaign dismisses the notion of an upward trend in right-track perceptions, insisting that a majority of voters will ultimately reject the economic status quo.
In a widely distributed campaign memo last month, Newhouse called the uptick a “sugar high” from the Democratic convention, inspired mostly by Clinton’s widely praised, feel-good speech. Newhouse says that optimism will dissipate by November.
“It’s doubtful it lasts because it is resting on quicksand,” Newhouse says. “There’s no there there. The economy is not getting better. President Obama wants people to settle, and we’re saying that’s not good enough.”
In other words, Romney’s campaign depends on voters ultimately rejecting “the new normal.” Obama’s reelection hinges on embracing it as a starting point for future recovery. The president’s wager is evident in the television ad it began airing last month that aims to turn Romney’s question—Are you better off than you were four years ago?—on its head. The Obama spot features doomsday images from 2008, disappointing but improved statistics from 2012—and a cameo from Clinton at the Democratic convention asserting that Republicans will drag the nation backwards.
Even worse for Romney, he appears to be running out of persuadable voters. The Allstate/NJ survey should worry the Romney campaign: Only a small slice of adults—5 percent—remain undecided. Even if Romney wins a majority of the 68 percent who said that the country is on the wrong track, he would still lose.
So for Romney to win the election, he has to persuade undecided voters to vote for him and peel away supporters from Obama. That seems unlikely, barring some economic catastrophe that would jolt Obama supporters into changing their minds.
Thus the hand-wringing that has consumed much of the Republican establishment in recent weeks seems justified. Still, Obama has no reason to be overconfident. There are three debates, two job reports, and untold numbers of unforeseen events on the campaign trail and in the world that could inject Romney’s campaign with momentum. Says former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: “Everyone has said the race will be close. Everyone is correct.”
REACHING HIS LIMITS
Perhaps Romney’s biggest problem is simply that he is an uninspiring candidate running a Grade B campaign. A tenuous relationship with the conservative base of his party has kept him from distinguishing himself from George W. Bush, even though voters blame the former president more than Obama for the economy’s current state. Romney has chased daily news cycles—his release of his tax returns after a particularly unflattering week is only the latest example—at the expense of long-term strategic decisions. He comes off as stiff and rich at a time when recession-weary voters are looking for authenticity and empathy.
“He’s a technocrat. His style is very formal,” says 43-year-old Annandale resident David Holland, another Dunkin’ Donuts customer in Fairfax County, who describes himself as a Republican but hasn’t committed to Romney. “I think it’s hard for some Americans to relate to him if they don’t come from a country club.”
Here’s what the Romney campaign knows about undecided voters like Holland: They are upset about the state of the economy. They think Obama has failed. But they are unsure about Romney. Will he fix my economy?
If he hopes to win, the time has come for Romney to make that case, forcefully. “What I’d like to see Mitt do is talk aggressively about why the economy is broken and how to fix it,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “ ‘Here’s why it’s broken, here’s how I would fix it,’ and talk in places where it really does matter. This is our election to lose.”
Some Romney allies, however, are wary of their candidate getting too entangled in policy weeds—especially since the president has mostly steered clear of detailing his second-term agenda. Voters should be nitpicking Obama’s record, not Romney’s tax plan, some Republican campaign veterans say.
“Obama has never proposed anything except to tax the rich,” says Washington lobbyist Charlie Black, an outside adviser to the Romney campaign. “If you’re getting more specific than that, you’re just setting yourself up for the other side to shoot at you. You don’t want to allow them to distract from our main message, which is about jobs and the economy.”