Worth Discussing

President Obama 'bounce'? Not in the polls

Whit Ayres and Luke Frans | Politico | September 19, 2012

Polling coverage since the national conventions has been consumed by bounces and speculation about whether the presidential contest has been altered in some fundamental way — presumably to President Barack Obama’s advantage. Conventional wisdom now holds that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney must “change the dynamic” to avoid almost certain defeat.

Yet that conventional wisdom flies in the face of the actual data.

Consider: Obama led Romney by 2.3 percentage points for all June polls, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of publicly released national voter surveys. That compares with 2.5 percent for polls taken in July and 2.4 percent for polls in August. The average for polls released so far in September? An Obama lead of 2.6 percentage points. Obama’s average remains, as it has throughout the summer, stuck stubbornly between 46 percent and 48 percent — below the magic 50 percent mark he needs for reelection.

That is a picture of remarkable stability — not fundamental change. Polling results seem remarkably resistant to controversies that consume the chattering class, whether surreptitious videos from donor meetings or statements about attacks in Libya. The reason is the overwhelming dominance of jobs and the economy looming over this election, and the powerful relationship between assessments of the president’s handling of the economy and voting preferences. Though the events in the Middle East have shown how quickly our attention can be diverted temporarily, the economy and issues related to it are very likely to remain the dominant issue throughout the fall.

Let’s say you are trying to predict the percentage of the vote that Obama will receive in a state or among a demographic group, and you could have only one piece of information. What would you pick? The proportion of voters who are satisfied with the direction of the country? Obama’s favorable rating? His overall job approval?

While all of those are important, our research at Resurgent Republic suggests an even better predictor: Obama’s job approval specifically on handling the economy.

Compare Obama’s job approval on handling the economy to his percentage on a two-way ballot with Romney from our August survey.

The pattern is consistent and obvious — knowing what a voter thinks about Obama’s economic stewardship gives you an excellent window into how likely that voter is to support his reelection. (For the statistically inclined, the correlation between answers to the two questions is .99 out of a perfect 1.0.) If you approve of Obama’s handling of the economy, you are very likely to vote for him. If you disapprove, you are very likely to be open to his opponent. That pattern is not a recent phenomenon — it has been consistent throughout Resurgent Republic’s polling all year.

This strong relationship makes sense. Virtually every poll shows a broad consensus that jobs and the economy are the most important issues for the public — crossing all demographic groups and geographic areas. Consequently, attitudes about Obama’s job performance on this issue overwhelm all other considerations.

The stability in the overall electorate also holds for the independent voters who will decide the outcome. Romney led Obama among independents in May, by 45 percent to 41 percent, according to our poll, compared with 45 percent to 40 percent in July and 45 percent to 37 percent in August.

This data indicates that all the back-and-forth of the presidential campaigns and the conventions have so far failed to change the fundamental reality: The election remains a referendum on Obama’s stewardship of the economy. The president’s ballot is not outperforming his economic record.

In our August survey, 46 percent of likely voters overall approved of Obama’s handling of the economy, and 51 percent disapproved.

So why isn’t Romney ahead? Because he has yet to consolidate behind his candidacy all the voters who disapprove of Obama’s economic stewardship. To do so, he needs to present a compelling alternative vision for why he and his vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), offer a more hopeful economic future for the country.

That is the function of the campaign and the upcoming debates. If Romney and Ryan can do so, they stand a good chance to win a narrow but clear victory in November.

Whit Ayres is co-founder and Luke Frans is executive director of Resurgent Republic, a center-right public opinion research organization that publishes its findings online at resurgentrepublic.com.

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Filed under: Political Climate, President Obama, and 2012 Election