In the lull between the debt ceiling debate and Labor Day, there have not been many national media polls for political junkies. So campaign-watchers are paying a huge amount of attention to this Gallup figure on Obama's handling of the economy, to this Gallup track of Obama's job ratings, and to today's Gallup poll showing Obama statistically tied with Romney, Perry, Paul and Bachmann.
Tough numbers. An upside-down job rating going into an election is difficult for incumbents to overcome. Stock market convulsions fuel unease. While the last set of job numbers showed increasing private-sector jobs, pessimism is high. And the margin of error on horse race questions is always unnerving. Should these trends continue, unabated, Obama faces gale force winds headed into 2012.
But scratch beneath the surface of these numbers and concurrent findings paint a far more nuanced picture (and some rays of hope).
Obama still leads in the generic, and beats Romney in key states. Gallup's Election 2012 homepage shows the president opening a lead over the generic Republican. This is an improvement over where he's been over the last few months, as written up here. And this month Democratic polling firm PPP showed Obama leading Romney (albeit within the margin of error) in three battleground states: Nevada, Ohio and North Carolina.
And don't forget this Republican field is weak. This Republican field is damaged. Every week we learn of a new candidate still contemplating a late plunge. Polls from earlier this summer showed Republican primary voters dissatisfied with their choices. And more recently Gallup notes lower Republican enthusiasm here. Karl Rove may try to spin this as primary voters are being extra-careful, but the numbers suggest otherwise.
Reagan and Clinton had approval ratings in the 40s that bounced back. As with recent two-term presidents, Obama's low approval rating could be signs of a bad cold, not a terminal disease. This Wall Street Journal chart shows both Reagan and Clinton with approval ratings dipping to the 40 percent level in their first term. This handy Gallup tool allows you to compare Gallup approval ratings across presidents by length in office, revealing Obama's ratings comparable to Reagan's and Clinton's. (George W. Bush's numbers did not dip in his first term, due to the post-9/11 climate.) Further, Gallup's release today notes Obama's vote exceeds his job approval ratings.
Electoral math shows a clear path. Just a slight rebound in Obama's job approval ratings yields a successful re-election map. Earlier this month Gallup showed Obama with above-average job approval ratings in enough states to have 215 electoral votes. Including the states with "average" job ratings brings him to 286 electoral votes. This assumes a national approval rating of 47 percent; while higher than where he is today, it's certainly not out of reach.
Republicans in Congress have suffered a self-inflicted wound. Poll after poll during the debt crisis showed Obama suffered less than Congressional Republicans. Earlier this month Fox found twice as many felt Obama was "putting politics aside and working for the good of the country" (31 percent) compared to Congressional Republicans (17 percent). And this Pew/Washington Post poll showed more becoming unfavorable toward Congressional Republicans as a result of the debt ceiling crisis than unfavorable toward Democrats in Congress or Obama.
It's no wonder Gallup shows Congressional approval at an all-time low (13 percent), and the lowest re-elect numbers for Congress in decades. And Democrats are now up in Gallup's generic Congressional ballot. While Republicans boasted that the debt ceiling fight provided them with a pressure point, they seem to have twisted their own arms in the process.
Obama faces responsibility, not blame. Voters will undoubtedly hold the president accountable for the pace of our economic recovery. But Republicans should be mindful of conflating blame and responsibility, as far more blame former President Bush than President Obama. In this CBS/NYT poll from June more Americans blame Bush, Wall Street, and even Congress than Obama. This CNN/Opinion Research Center poll shows far more responsibility laid at the feet of former President Bush. And while slightly more say Obama's policies have made things worse, Obama's "better" numbers are better than Congress or Bush.
No question difficult politics combined with a difficult economy will make the president's re-election campaign challenging. But pundits are making premature predictions about Obama's chances. Neither the broad view nor the long view show antipathy toward the president, especially as voters learn about the alternatives.