06/21/2012 12:48 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2012

Latest Polls Show a Close Race, But Where Is the Romney Effect?

The headline from the most recent AP-Gfk Poll (June 2012), "Obama loses advantage over Romney as economic anxieties increase," doesn't tell the full story about what's NOT happening with public opinion. My read of the data shows that despite economic concerns the public has shown little movement in 2012, and Romney's message about the economy hasn't changed much at all. So, let me offer a few points about interpreting numbers from the poll; and, just to foreshadow my point, I'm asking, "where's the Romney effect?"

First, the most understated finding from the poll is that Romney's horse race numbers from December 2011 to June 2012 are down from 46% to 42% among all respondents. Moreover, the poll shows no change in Romney's horse race numbers from March 2012. Where is the Romney effect? But, okay, let's move to some patterns from the poll's results.

The Obama economic approval numbers for the AP-Gfk poll have remained mostly constant (1% point decline) since June 2010 and have actually increased by 4% points since June 2011 (neither of these changes are outside the MOE). If Romney's message on Obama's economic performance is having an effect, why haven't Obama's numbers dramatically changed?

When respondents were asked who they "trust to do a better job on handling the economy," Obama and Romney are tied now, just like they were in March of this year. Moreover, Obama's unemployment approval numbers are up 5 percentage points from June 2011, and have not changed (again, considering the MOE) in all of 2012. Once again, where is the effect of Romney's "Obama is weak on the economy" message?

Last point about the AP-Gfk Obama numbers: I'd be willing to bet that controlling for party ID (including independents), gender, and race-ethnicity, there is a weak (if any) correlation between Obama's economic ratings, and his favorability, his horse race support, or even Romney's favorability. And, while the "direction of the country" numbers are declining this year, they are similar to their June 2011 levels, and not necessarily tied to Obama outside of partisanship. In other words, the election is more about partisanship and demographics than views on the economy.

The "Obama is the problem" message is a primary, rather than general election, strategy. It doesn't resonate with Democrats, and isn't really moving independents and moderates (many of whom are former Republicans); thus, counter to many narratives broadcast throughout the media, Romney's message is having virtually NO EFFECT.

One really has to ask to what extent is the economy a crystallized issue? Saying the economy will be the main issue in the election is like saying social relationships will be everything in life; there are many bits and pieces that matter more or less in life just as they do in the economy. Talking in broad terms about the economy doesn't give one much direction, and thus, people are lost trying to figure it out.

As the AP-Gfk poll shows, just as many people believe that the economy will weakly (50%) impact ("just some/a little/no impact") the November election as believe it will heavily (48%) impact it ("a lot/a great deal"). Forget where's the beef, it's really, "where's the economy?"

My theory is that the negative framing of the economy around Obama is getting lost because 1) the U.S. economy has actually gotten better even if the global economy is still untenable, and 2) the Republicans haven't offered any unified theory (message) to the public that would lead to a belief they, or Romney, could do better. It's true that there are strong concerns about the economy, but the public understands that the issue is complex, and not entirely due to Obama.

In political communication, messaging really does matter. From my reading of many polls, the public sees the GOP as offering nothing new or coherent, and their positions come across as more anti-Obama, than pro-help America out of the recession. Pinning your entire message on "out with Obama" is a losing strategy among independent and moderate voters because they'll look at the GOP's record and say, "well at least the Democratic led Congress did something" even if they don't like everything that was done.

Romney is also losing the "truth" messaging war. He consistently says Obama's policies haven't worked even though the economy has actually improved since Obama took office (just look at any unemployment rate chart). Romney really means that Obama's policies haven't solved everything; but of course, you can't say that because it implies the policies (i.e., economic stimulus) have solved some things. He can't continue this strategy moving forward because his misinformation will come to characterize his candidacy and take him off message post-debates (assumption: the media will do its job).

Lastly, a point about how to test some of the real implications about perceptions of the economy and presidential candidates in forthcoming polls. [Those squeamish about polling matters can skip to the end.]

Even given the old pocketbook model (i.e., my economic concerns drive my candidate preference), I wonder how the implied correlation works for Romney. For example, a sort of retrospective framing of "if Mitt Romney were president do you think the economy would be better, worse, or about the same?" Then provide some comparison via the data. Right now, there's a one-sided economy and leadership message which implies "economy does bad, so does Obama." But this isn't the case if people think that Romney would be no different in the current situation (i.e., "no Romney effect").

As we move to September and Romney is pressured to give specifics -- some of which have already been dismissed as ineffective, as well as more damaging than the status quo -- these early numbers about the economy and Obama's ability to handle the broad range of issues may prove less meaningful. So, it would be nice to have some comparative (i.e., Romney) context (i.e., any different) to judge these numbers.

UPDATE (6/22): The Washington Post has polled on some comparative questions and found that the public sees no difference between Obama's and Romney's economic skills. Further evidence that the "Romney as economic champion" message is not driving support differences between he and Obama.

See Results: If Romney had been president since 2009 instead of Obama, do you think you yourself would be better off financially than you are now, not as well off, or in about the same shape financially?

See Results: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of Mitt Romney's (Barack Obama's) plan for the economy?

All in all, the real question seems to be if things are so horrible and bad with the economy why haven't Romney's numbers jumped through the sky and Obama's numbers plummeted? I don't think that any smart reader of polls can tell you today who will win in November, but campaign research suggests that Romney will have a much tougher time than Obama moving forward because of VP pick scrutiny, national debate prep, changing national and international issues will require him to be more specific in his positions, and the like. Obama has the advantage of incumbency and stronger favorability than Romney; Romney's main political advantage is that he's not currently in any elected office to see how he'd perform in this economy.

Again, if business background is a winning message, where's the Romney effect?