The Obama-Romney horse race is still a dead heat, according to the latest national polls. No surprise there. But below that top line, the numbers tell a tale of two presidential candidates with glaring weaknesses.
For President Obama, the sputtering economic recovery is his Achilles’ heel. Voters are increasingly discouraged by Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy, with only 39 percent of registered voters saying they approve, versus 55 percent who disapprove, according to the latest New York Times–CBS poll. That’s down from 44 percent approval, 48 percent disapproval in April.
And that decline, in turn, is likely what’s sinking Obama’s job approval number, which went from 48 percent in April to 44 percent in mid-July.
The most alarming number of all for Obama may be “favorability” – a measure of how voters feel overall about him, not his job performance or whether they would vote for him over Mitt Romney. In the head-to-head horse race, he’s at 46 percent to Mr. Romney’s 47 percent, a statistical tie. But on favorability, Obama is at 36 percent, the lowest number of his presidency for this poll, down from 42 percent in April.
One would think such low public regard would spell doom for Obama. Conventional wisdom holds that favorability needs to be up around 50 percent if a candidate expects to win. But there is recent experience that shows otherwise.
During President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, “there was a lot of handwringing and armchair analysis over the fact that he was well under 50 percent,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “But he squeaked it out.”
And there’s plenty in the CBS-NYT poll for Romney to worry about. He scores even lower than Obama on favorability: 32 percent favorable to 36 percent unfavorable. Both of those numbers reflect an increase from April, when he was at 29 percent favorable and 34 percent unfavorable. In addition, 21 percent are undecided, and 10 percent say they haven’t heard enough.
So the good news for Romney is that he has a big potential upside: Nearly a third of voters haven’t passed judgment on him, good or bad. That’s why we’re seeing a lot of his wife, Ann, and his five sons, who can add a personal dimension to a man who can be awkward in public. And that’s why Team Obama is working overtime trying to tear down Romney’s reputation over his career at Bain Capital and his unwillingness to release more tax returns beyond the two already out. So far, it’s not clear that Obama is succeeding.
The president also trails Romney in a head-to-head matchup on the most important issue, the economy. Some 49 percent say Romney would do a better job handling the economy and jobs, to 41 percent for Obama.
Measurements of enthusiasm present a mixed picture. Fifty-two percent of Obama supporters favor him strongly, while just 29 percent of Romney supporters back him strongly. But Republicans are more excited about voting. About half of Republicans saying they’re more enthusiastic about voting than in past elections, while only 27 percent of Democrats report the same.
Ultimately, given all the mixed messages from voters, it’s no wonder that the recent major public polls show the race so close. The Real Clear Politics average shows Obama up by 1.4 percentage points. While the CBS-New York Times poll shows Romney up by 1 point, Fox News has Obama up by 4. Rasmussen tracking has Romney up by 1, and Gallup tracking has Obama up by 2.
Another clue into the trajectory of the race comes from battleground states, and one of the most important is Virginia. A new Quinnipiac poll of Virginia voters shows that Romney has erased Obama’s lead there, where they are now tied at 44 percent apiece. In March, Obama led Romney there 50-42.
“One small edge that President Barack Obama has is likability,” says Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn. “Voters have a slightly more favorable opinion of the president than they do Gov. Mitt Romney.”
“But neither man is exactly Mr. Popularity,” he adds. “Romney has a negative 39 – 42 percent favorability, compared to Obama’s divided 46 – 48 percent. One of them is going to win the White House, but neither would get elected Prom King.”