Real Clear Politics has President Barack Obama leading Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, by 4.6 percentage points in its poll average. Pollster.com gives Obama a similar lead. The bettors at Intrade.com give the Democrats a 60 percent chance of retaining the White House.
And Republicans are growing more pessimistic. George Will of the Washington Post thinks they should throw in the towel.
The conventional wisdom has moved substantially in the president’s favor in recent weeks, but the underlying circumstances of the election have not. Â Republicans still have a good shot at winning the presidency.
Start with Obama’s poll numbers, which are mediocre. His job-approval rating has been trending upward since October, but is still below 50 percent. More people disapprove than approve of his performance on health care and on the economy â€” two issues likely to be critical in the election. A Gallup/USA Today poll recently found that among swing-state voters, Romney is actually beating Obama. (As is Rick Santorum.) Even in state polls that have Obama ahead, his numbers are weak: He’s below 46 percent in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Iowa. And almost 60 percent of Americans believe the country is “on the wrong track,” which typically doesn’t bode well for an incumbent president.
All these numbers could keep improving for Obama if the economy keeps improving, too. The conventional wisdom depends on both straight-line projections coming true. The economy, however, faces considerable downside risk. An Israeli strike on Iran could send oil prices soaring. Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis may worsen, and spread to America.
And even an improving economy will not be, by historical standards, a strong one. No incumbent has won re-election with unemployment of more than 7.2 percent since Franklin Roosevelt. Unemployment has a surprisingly weak correlation with election outcomes â€” but the data set doesn’t include many examples of elections with joblessness in today’s range. Confident judgments about how the economy will do, and how it will affect the election, shouldn’t be trusted.
Our expectations about what the race will look like in the fall are distorted by what it looks like now. “Our primary is not much fun to watch â€” it’s pretty messy, and it’s pretty bruising,” says Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “Once there’s a one-on-one race between our nominee and the president, all of that changes overnight.” Republicans will unify, he predicts, “because four more years of Obama is an untenable thought for any conservative.”
The likelihood that conservatives would fail to turn out for Romney is overblown. Conservatives clearly have serious reservations about him. But come November they will be choosing between a candidate who favors tax cuts, the repeal of Obama’s health-care law, and the appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices, and a candidate who opposes each of those things. In competitive presidential races, conservatives always turn out for the Republican.
The back-and-forth of the Republican primaries has driven up Romney’s “negatives” â€” that is, the percentage of Americans who say they have an unfavorable view of him. This trend is widely held to be indicative of how costly the primaries have been for him. But is it really? Some of the people who report unfavorable views of Romney are conservatives who are currently supporting candidates his campaign has savaged, but who will vote for him in November. Many of the rest are people who were bound to have a negative opinion of Romney by then anyway.
Everyone expects a negative campaign on both sides. The bitter primary may just have fast-forwarded the increase of Romney’s negatives. Even with high negatives, and even without the ability to drive a message that damages Obama, Romney is only a few points behind Obama in the polls.
Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst for Real Clear Politics, pointed out last November that Obama’s poll numbers have tended to rise when he has been out of the headlines. Obama’s recent gain has conformed to the pattern. Republicans have been absorbed in recent months with internal battles, and political coverage has been, too. Obama won’t be able to stay invisible in the fall.
Romney isn’t a natural political talent, and he has had trouble winning the blue-collar support that he will need in November. But Obama also lacks an easy rapport with these voters, and his own political skills are overrated.
He may well win re-election, as most incumbents do. But if he is favored to win, he isn’t heavily favored. In recent weeks, both E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post and Albert R. Hunt of Bloomberg View have warned Obama’s team against overconfidence. They’re right. The more Obama thinks the election is his, the less it will be.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.