Five and half months before the election, polls find President Obama and the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in a virtual dead heat. The reason is the stagnant economy. While Obama holds Democrats, and Romney Republicans, independents have swung to Romney because they dislike his economic ideas less than Obama's.
A recent Pew Research poll profiled the U.S. electorate. In 2012, Pew projects that 10 percent of potential voters will not vote. Pew allocates the remaining 90 percent to three groups: "Mostly Republican," 25 percent, "Mostly Independent," 35 percent, and "Mostly Democratic," 40 percent. (Pew allocates Libertarians, 10 percent, to the independent bloc, but most of us consider them Republicans.) Writing in the New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky observed, "Only 7 percent of the entire electorate... were truly swing voters."
Whatever their actual percentage, independents are unhappy with the president. A June 13th ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 54 percent of independents disliked Obama's plans. (47 percent of independents viewed Romney's plans negatively.)
One explanation is because the economy has been bad for more than three years, independents blame the president -- they expected him to have solved the problems. Another explanation is that independents are inclined to give Romney the benefit of the doubt because they don't know him as well as Obama.
Of course, Mitt Romney blames Obama for the nation's economic woes. "When he was recently elected [Obama] went on the The Today Show and he was asked about what he'd do, how he'd measure his success, and he said" 'Look, if I can't turn the economy around in three years, I will be looking at a one-term proposition.'" Romney says the president is "driving the U.S. forward over a cliff."
Not surprisingly, Obama sees things differently.
"Long before the economic crisis of 2008 the basic bargain at the heart of this country has begun to erode. For more than a decade, it had become harder to find a job that paid the bills, harder to save, harder to retire, harder to keep up with rising costs of gas and health care and college tuitions... [Republicans said] that huge tax cuts, especially for the wealthiest Americans, would lead to faster job growth. We were told that fewer regulations, especially for big financial institutions and corporations, would bring about widespread prosperity. We were told that it was OK to put two wars on the nation's credit card; that tax cuts would create a enough growth to pay for themselves. And in the fall of 2008 it all came tumbling down with a financial crisis that plunged the world into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Here in America families' wealth declined at a rate nearly seven times faster than when the market crashed in 1929. Millions of homes were foreclosed our deficit soared, and 9 million of our citizens lost their jobs..."
Republicans blame Obama while the president blames Republican economic policies that were in place long before he was elected. Given the ABC News/Washington Post Poll, it appears that independents believe the Republican explanation. But it's likely they're not sure which party to trust. A recent Daily Kos poll found that "Among independents, 50 percent said that Republicans are stalling the recovery compared to 40 percent who said they are not."
The fact that independents don't trust either party is a ray of hope for Obama.
The president has to do four things to win back independents. First, he has to tie the current economic malaise to failed Republican policies. For example, he has to point out that private sector jobs have recovered during his tenure; the job loss has been in the public sector -- 600,000 jobs -- due to Republican actions at the state and local level. Second, Obama has to tie Romney to these policies and paint him as the reincarnation of George W. Bush -- in a recent Gallup Poll 68 percent of respondents said Bush was responsible for the bad state of the economy.
Third, Obama has to explain what he'll do in the next four years; what actions will he take to improve the economy given the likelihood that Democrats will not control both the House and Senate? In his Cleveland speech Obama described "an economy that's built not from the top down but from a growing middle class; that provides ladders of opportunities for folks who aren't yet in the middle class." The recent Survey of Consumer Finances revealed that between 2007 and 2010 median U.S. family income dropped by nearly 8 percent. Obama has to communicate that recent economic gains have all gone to the top 1 percent, not the middle class. And finally, Obama has to tie Romney to the 1 percent -- paint him as the pawn of those who have ripped off the middle class.
Despite all the bad economic news, Obama has a favorability lead over Romney. The president has to build upon this and convince independents their best interests will be served by voting for him in November.