05/15/2012 12:57 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

Election Monitor: Obama Campaign Sets Out to Define Romney


In the last 10 days, team Obama has gone on the offensive, using a two-pronged issue strategy: one economic, and one social, that for about 48 hours put the Romney campaign on its heels. When a campaign moves this aggressively they are usually looking at polling that we don't see, and that polling most assuredly showed a deteriorating electoral outlook. More problematic for the president's campaign, the data [probably also] shows a rehabilitated Romney that has solidified his position with Republicans and begun to capture a large portion of Independents. It is not panic time, but for the Obama campaign, the time to paint Romney is now.

This morning, a couple of public polls give us some insight into what team Obama is seeing. The first, a new USA Today/Gallup poll released today showed that 71 percent of adults rate economic conditions in the country as poor. Additionally, 55 percent said that the economy would get better next year if Romney was elected President, while only 46 percent said the same if Obama is reelected. Importantly, Romney's favorable/unfavorable is 50 percent to 41 percent. This is a dramatic improvement from two months ago when his unfavorable rating was well above 50 percent.

Also, a new CBS/NYT re-contact poll conducted over the weekend showed that 67 percent believe the president's announcement in support of gay marriage was done for political reasons, while only 24 percent said that he did it because he thought it was right. That means that even a majority of those that support gay marriage think the president did it for electoral reasons. Even more of an issue is the fact that 16 percent said that the president's support of gay marriage made them more likely to vote for him in November while 26 percent said less likely. Most (57 percent) said the issue would have no effect on their vote.

Although this survey has a small sample size and is only among adults, rather than frequent voters, the takeaway suggests that the issue is less of a vote generator for the president than the average person would guess from watching the media reaction the last four days.

Here is our up to the minute take on the status of the campaign:

  • The Obama campaign has decided to try to cut the legs right out from under Romney by going after his two supposed strengths: as someone who can create jobs and as a political moderate. If executed correctly, it may turn out to be a smart strategy. To go after Romney on jobs, Bain is back and in a big way. A new two-minute Obama campaign TV ad that hits Romney for killing jobs while at Bain is airing in key swing states such as Ohio, Iowa and Virginia. My guess is that team Obama had polling that reflected a USA Today/Gallup poll last week which showed that Romney was beating the president on handling the economy and decided to go straight at the issue. The question is whether Romney can articulate his faith in free enterprise as a counterpoint to the president's populist message.

    On the second front, whether it was coordinated or not, last week's gay marriage announcement and the corresponding media examination of a potential Romney high school bullying issue was an attempt to push the GOP candidate to the right at the exact time when he most wanted to tack to the middle. The problem for the Obama campaign is that there needs to be a track record of Romney intolerance on this issue and my sense is that it doesn't exist, and that the message will be hard to sustain if there is not.

  • On the gay marriage issue, while it remains to be seen where this nets out from a political perspective, the fact is that it does give some energy to a GOP base that had been flagging. Yes, national opinion has been steadily trending toward support in recent years, with roughly half of Americans supporting legal gay marriage. But as many have pointed out, in many key swing states in 2012 such as Virginia and Ohio, the majority of voters feel gay marriage should remain illegal (Colorado is the one exception). So while the issue energizes liberals as well, our sense is that Romney may have needed it more. The problem for Romney is that he will take a hit with Independents if there is a sustained focus on social issues. From the Romney perspective, this has to be over and done with as quickly as possible, while team Obama would very much like to keep the issue alive.
  • Speaking of Independents, they are still a big problem for Obama and part of the reason for the above cited strategy. According to the latest weekly Gallup tracking poll, only 43 percent of Indies approve of the President's job performance. Among "pure Independents", taking out those that lean either Democrat or Republican, his job approval number is an abysmal 33 percent. The Obama campaign is aiming straight at Independents when they say that Romney is part of the extreme elements of the political right.
  • The near term global economic outlook is hugely problematic for the President. It is now very likely that Greece will default and this will cause considerable panic in world markets. While that effect may be temporary, it could not come at a worse time for the Obama administration. This on the heels of last week's unseating of French President Sarkozy, the partial nationalization of Spanish bank Bankia and Chancellor Merkel's weakening political position suggests an unsteady situation. Europe's problems will not likely sink the U.S. economy but they will impact the market and overall sentiment. Obama needs optimism but he is unlikely to get any from Europe.
  • The gender gap cuts two ways. Yes, the President enjoys a substantial lead among women (as many as 12 points in the latest Gallup poll) but Romney is much stronger among men (an 8 point lead in the same survey). While the Obama campaign is busy trying to drive a wedge between Romney and women, they should not lose sight of their own gender gap problem. Obama has a "man" problem and it is tied to spending and taxes. The Romney campaign will spend a lot of time in the coming months trying to exploit this issue.
  • Obama the neophyte is ancient history: three-in-five voters see him as the more experienced candidate. In a recent NBC/WSJ poll, 45 percent of voters said "knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency" better describes Obama and just 30 percent of voters chose Romney. Obama is also more widely perceived as being a "good commander-in-chief" (43 percent vs. 33 percent). In 2008, Obama's inexperience was a major liability but after three-plus years in the White House, voters consider him experienced. Is this ultimately something that the Obama team ends up using against Romney? That would be ironic.
  • Team Romney want this election to be a choice, therefore, Romney must now make the case for voters to choose him over Obama. Analysis by AEI of a number of publically-released polls shows voters trust Obama at least as much as Romney to handle most issues, including some traditional Republican strong suits such as foreign policy and taxation. There is also an 18-point gap in likability (81 percent think Obama is likable, vs. 63 percent for Romney) and a 13-point gap in whether he is "someone I can relate to" (47 percent vs. 34 percent). If Romney can't win on the strength of his personal qualities he will need to start articulating to voters how his policies will improve on Obama's.

While much of the above suggests things have swung toward Romney the last 30-60 days, he is still the underdog because of the electoral college map. The map is Obama's friend. Analyses may vary on this, but we project that the president probably starts with approximately 215 to 230 secure electoral votes. Next week we will roll out our map and start to examine polling in the key swing states.

Thanks to John Zirzinsky and Allison Quigley for their insights and contributions to this election monitor. Follow us on Twitter: @Steve_Lombardo.

Please note that the author was an advisor to the Romney for President campaign in 2008 but is not affiliated with any campaign in 2012.