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The Obama-Romney Matchup: Closer Than You Think

June 25, 2012

Polls Suggest a November Nail-Biter

Still wondering if this year’s presidential election will be close? Well, how about a look at the latest Gallup polling numbers over the last several days.

Since the beginning of June, the key numbers in the Gallup Daily Tracking poll are 46 and 45 percent. In that time period, President Obama scored 46 percent support on six days, to 45 percent for Mitt Romney, his expected Republican challenger. Romney has hit 46 percent seven times, and each time the president came up short with 45 percent. In other words, even though we are months from the election, this race is looking really close and any number of factors could make a difference in November.

With all that said a new Bloomberg poll is getting some attention. Bloomberg gives the president a huge 53 to 40 percent lead over Romney, one of the largest gaps seen in recent national polls. The question will now be debated whether the Bloomberg survey is an aberration in the ongoing series of polls or whether it hints at some sort of major shift in the race. Too early to know but stay tuned.

The Economy Will be Key

Obviously, the biggest factor remains the economy. It is the president’s weakest selling point, but also the area where even a little improvement in the months to come could pay huge political dividends. The economy has been in a down cycle of late, with the unemployment rate creeping back up to 8.2 percent and a decline in public optimism about where the country is headed. The more the economy remains weak, the more you can expect the Obama campaign to try and make Mitt Romney the issue instead. One TV ad getting a lot of play is an attack on Romney’s economic record as governor of Massachusetts that highlights the fact the state was 47th out of 50 states in job creation during part of Romney’s tenure.

But the experts I’ve talked to of late say that tactic will only go so far. The Romney campaign wants the vote in November to be purely a referendum on Mr. Obama’s economic record, not a choice election as the Obama campaign would prefer. The Romney camp believes they can replicate Ronald Reagan’s 1980 focus on incumbent Jimmy Carter, with the same devastating (for Mr. Carter), bottom-line question for voters: Are you better off today than you were four years ago?

Independent Voters Are Pessimistic

Romney also seems to have opportunities to make inroads with independent voters, many of whom supported the president four years ago. Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report was parsing some recent polling data from one survey on independent voters the other day and it was stunning how few believe the country is headed in the right direction (15 percent) and how many believe it is headed in the wrong direction (81 percent). OK, granted, it’s just one poll. But yikes, if you’re in the White House reading that.

It’s clear the president has a lot of work to do to convince swing voters who remain undecided that he should be given another four years in the White House. That’s why there is a huge push going on among core Obama voters to make sure they get out and vote this year. Turnout among African-American voters, young people and Hispanic-Americans was a major reason why Mr. Obama piled up a huge victory in 2008. But getting those same voters out again, especially young people and Hispanics, will be a major test for the campaign.

For example, Mitt Romney is doing well with older white voters but faces a huge deficit with the president in terms of Hispanic support. Down the line, the growth of the Hispanic community should help Democrats and could penalize Republicans, particularly if they continue to insist on strict immigration enforcement along with the tough kind of rhetoric that tends to turn off Hispanics around the country.

But unless the Obama camp can light a fire under Hispanic community activists, Romney could benefit from an upsurge in older white voters who are lining up against the president and seem determined to get out to the polls. Older voters are much more reliable in getting to the polls than younger voters anyway.

The Swing States

Also, take a look at Mitt Romney’s recent campaign bus tour. It began in New Hampshire and hit five other so-called “swing states” that should be pivotal in this year’s election. They include Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio and Michigan. President Obama won all six of these states four years ago, most by healthy margins over Republican John McCain. But the Romney campaign is convinced most of these states are in play this year and victories in Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan in November would go a long ways to making Romney the next president. Expect both candidates to focus on these states in the months ahead plus a handful of others including Florida, Colorado and Virginia.

The next big event to watch for will be Romney’s selection of a vice presidential running mate. Romney knocked down an ABC News report this week that Florida Senator Marco Rubio is not being vetted as part of his short list of vice presidential possibilities, insisting Rubio is under consideration. But I still believe the Romney camp will choose someone more experienced who will first and foremost be seen by voters and the media as ready to be president right away, a direct contrast with McCain’s much-panned selection of Sarah Palin in 2008. With that factor in mind, the favorites at the moment appear to be former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who is working hard for Romney’s campaign, and Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who served as budget director and trade representative under President George W. Bush.

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