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Election Monitor: Obama's Strategy and Why Romney Really Is the Front-runner

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Friends,

Thirty days ago, the President's team made what may end up being their most important strategic decision of the 2012 political campaign. Team Obama decided that the President could no longer stay above the fray and use the gravitas of the office to avoid directly responding to the early brickbats from Republicans. Instead, they chose to engage and the weapon they chose was class warfare. Yes, polling data shows that the public largely supports increasing taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year. However, our sense is that is hardly a platform for a sitting President to run on. It was a curious decision and one they will have to live with. So here is where we sit as of 11:00 a.m. this morning:

  • The Obama jobs bill failed in the Senate. This feeds into the strategy to go after Republicans, but it also signals how ineffectual the President has become.
  • The terror plot linked to Iran has been getting some media attention, but as we said before: if it doesn't involve the economy, it is like a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it. How ironic that a sitting Democratic President would desperately like the public to turn its attention to international affairs.
  • Obama's approval rating remains an abysmal 43% and according to our average of recent polls, his disapproval rating is at 53%. Independents have tuned out the President (they may come back) with only 36% of them approving of his overall performance.

Since the GOP field is the topic on everyone's mind, we'll start with our analysis of the state of the field, through last night's debate: (it is important to acknowledge that while I do not work for any of the Presidential candidates, I did work for Governor Romney's campaign in 2008. Nevertheless, as I have done since 2004, every effort has been made to deliver this analysis as objectively as possible regardless of personal preferences)

  • Mitt Romney appears to have solidified the front-runner status that was briefly in peril after the recent enthusiasm for Rick Perry, turning in another solid performance at last night's debate. As the saying goes, he won by not losing. As is often the case in these crowded debates, last night's Bloomberg/Washington Post debate at Dartmouth College did not have many fireworks or much time for the candidates to really make themselves or their positions known. But even by those standards, we pretty much got what we expected, based on earlier contests. Romney was again poised and prepared, turning in another solid performance. Rick Perry seemed tired and failed to really land his punches. We heard a lot about Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan, which does not, apparently, involve the price of pizza. The other candidates all seemed happy to be there -- except Gary Johnson, watching from the audience -- and played familiar roles. Once again, it seems obvious to declare Romney the winner. The timing of the endorsement from Chris Christie could not have been better either, making the day's news a nice combination for Romney.
  • While there's still a long way to go, it appears that primary voters are beginning to coalesce around Romney. With most voters still hardly paying attention, we think that it's still far too early in the process to put much stock in national horserace polls of the GOP field. And as recent years have shown, the traditional early GOP primaries are increasingly idiosyncratic. Our sense is that leading the polls in Iowa (Cain), New Hampshire (Romney), and South Carolina (Perry) is less important than it has ever been, for reasons that have more to do with the geography of the social conservative/moderate division in the Republican Party than anything exciting about the candidates themselves. Still, here's a look at the latest polling data from these key early states, plus Florida and Ohio, both of which we feel are better indicators of the overall GOP primary electorate.

2011-10-12-gop2.jpg

  • While Romney is the current favorite in all these states except South Carolina, who is leading at the moment is less important than whether a candidate is demonstrating an ability to be competitive and capture a significant vote share, despite the crowded field -- and Romney is. Conversely, Rick Perry and Herman Cain are each running neck-and-neck with Romney in a couple states, yet falling to a distant third in either Florida (Perry) or Ohio (Cain).
  • The best thing that happened to Romney was Perry's entry in the race. Since then he has seemed more confident and aggressive than ever before. Obama needed a tough fight with Clinton and Romney needed this. Of course it helps that Perry seems bored with the entire process.
  • We love reading Mark Murray's First Read analysis every morning, but to say that Romney is not the leader because if you combine Cain, Perry and Bachmann he is behind 2 to 1 is using faulty logic. Yes, conservatives have not yet entirely coalesced around Romney. But there is no opposing candidate named CainPerryBachmann. Someone has to beat Romney and at this time there is little evidence that if one or two of the three above named candidates were to drop out that their support would go to the other. At some point in the next 30 days voters are going to start making hard choices and a lot of that will have to do with who they believe has the best chance of defeating Barack Obama. And if only for that reason, you have to believe Romney is the current front-runner.

Here's a quick snapshot of the current national political and economic environment:

  • News about the U.S. economy has been relatively quiet over the last few weeks. Unfortunately, no news is bad news; we remain stuck in the ditch. Mark Zandi of Moody's has close ties to the White House and has been one of the more optimistic macroeconomic forecasters over the past few years. Yet even he puts the odds of another recession in the next 6 - 12 months at 40%, in his latest outlook, titled "Barely Staying Afloat". Double-dip or not, the current slowdown is real and is still causing very real pain to American families. Last week's jobs report showed unemployment held at 9.1% in September, still stuck in the same 9.0 - 9.2% range it's been since April. As we've said before, there is still some time for the unemployment trend to reverse and Obama to benefit from several months of meaningful job gains. However, time is slipping away. And just as discouraged workers will eventually give up looking for jobs, voters who have waited long enough for Obama's promised jobs agenda to bear fruit may stop awarding him credit, even if green shoots do appear early next year.
  • As we mentioned above, the White House political team is signaling their sense of insecurity by deploying President Obama's bus tour to sell his $447 billion Jobs Act and get a leg-up on his re-election campaigning. The problem with the jobs bill, from a political standpoint, is that it's a mishmash of ideas, none of which seem new and the extent of which seem unimpressive against the yardstick of the $821 billion Recovery Act. By packaging the unemployment extension and infrastructure spending together with tax cut extensions and some accounting tricks, Obama has combined a package that everyone, regardless of their ideology, will have to hold their nose to support. While this may signal to Democrats that Obama is intent on "doing something", it is a perilous, half-measure solution when Independents are increasingly questioning Obama's ability to get something done to restart the economy, as we'll discuss further below.
  • The death of the American-born jihadi Anwar al-Awlaki is another hard-won victory in the War on Terror. While it may not have been the coup de grace -- or even the achievement that bin Laden's death was -- it is another sturdy plank for the White House to use to build Obama's credentials in being "tough on terror". Al-Awlaki was a key propagandist and recruiter for al-Qaeda, particularly in the vacuum following bin Laden's death. Unlike the aftermath of that raid, we have not seen an inflection point in attitudes toward the War on Terror or Obama's handling of the issue. Still, look for the White House to point to this as an example of Obama's ability to continue to take the fight to our worst national enemies, while keeping us safe from a major incident on U.S. soil.
  • The Euro zone crisis continues to unfold in what feels like slow-motion with many analysts now saying that a default by Greece is near-certain and Europe's leaders grimly staring down the potential ramifications. While the impact of the eventual resolution on the global--and therefore American--economy will certainly be felt by voters, our sense is that this is still not a meaningful issue for U.S. elections. Voters have been asked to understand and endure a lot of new issues throughout our own credit crisis--like default swaps and quantitative easing--and the troubles in Greece are just simply more remote than the housing credit crisis right here on our doorstep.
  • A summer packed with disasters and extreme weather has only added to the stress and unease clouding the national mood. Except for maybe the Pacific Northwest, no region was spared from violent weather this summer. La Nina and Hurricane Irene brought record downfalls, mudslides and property damage to both coasts, the Midwest experienced record flooding and Texas and the Great Plains saw a drought of Dust Bowl proportions. We even had a record-breaking mid-Atlantic earthquake, just for good measure. All this rumbling and shaking--and the ongoing debate about whether we are pushing the Earth's environment into a catastrophe--only serves to further shake an electorate that is already rattled.
  • As we flagged earlier, it is no surprise that Obama's falling overall approval is being driven by a decline in his approval rate among independents. Since early May, Independent voters have been steadily moving away from Obama. It appears to be this group, more than any other, that is responsible for Obama's recent poll woes. As Mark Blumenthal points out, the canard that it is black voters is untrue--their support for the President remains historically high. And for all the talk about Obama "losing his base" over the summer, his approval rating average among Democrats is still within about 6 points of where it was at the beginning of this year and has actually improved since mid-August. Meanwhile, Obama's approval rating among Independents steadily lost more than 10 points this summer, reaching its current low of approximately 36% approval. The declining satisfaction with Obama among Independents is now starting to show up in 2012 horse-race trial heats: for the first time, the October Pew survey shows Romney winning handily, 54-41%, among Independent voters.

2011-10-12-approval2.jpg

  • The other story that is emerging is that Obama is struggling in many of the key swing states in the "rust belt", such as Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. For example, in Ohio, a recent Quinnipiac poll shows Obama is at his lowest standing ever, with 42% overall approval, with 53% disapproving of the job he is doing. This is low enough to leave Obama losing hypothetical matchups to both Romney (44-42) and Perry (44-41), in a state he won 51.5-46.9% in 2008. This evident weakness has Team Obama sounding almost ready to concede. It is true that turnout patterns and Obama's declining stature among (mostly white, mostly blue-collar) independents in the Midwest are likely to make states like Colorado and North Carolina easier pickups in 2012. Still, Obama will need to find 270 electoral votes somewhere and it's not easy to see how he can do so while losing more than one or two of Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes), Ohio (20), Michigan (17), Indiana (11) and Wisconsin (10). And it's not clear that Florida--despite its large Hispanic population--is any safer of a bet for an Obama repeat. In the latest Quinnipiac poll of the state, Obama is at just 39% approval--57% disapprove--and is losing to Romney (47 - 40) and beats Perry by only 44 - 42, within the margin of error. In August, before Obama's approval slide began, he was deadlocked with Romney. And unless things change markedly in the next few months, you can expect many of those currently undecided voters to break away from Obama.
  • This election is all about Obama, just as the 2004 election was all about George W. Bush. As this Pew data shows, voters overwhelmingly describe their hypothetical 2012 vote as "for" or "against" Obama, not his Republican challenger. Obama's goal is to make the election a choice between he and the GOP candidate.

2011-10-12-Pew.jpg

As far as predictions go, ours remains the same: if the 2012 election is truly a referendum on Obama, he will lose. However, if the economy improves and Obama is able to present the election as a choice between himself and the Republican, he will at least stand a chance.