Today, Texas will put Romney over the top in terms of delegate count making him the unofficial Republican nominee. In response to the Bain attacks, team Romney has shot back with a countermove designed to put the president on the defensive. One thing is certain thus far in the election cycle: we have two well-armed and savvy political teams that are unlikely to let any shot from the opposition go without response. Here is our up-to-the-minute assessment of the current socio-political environment:
- Team Romney has decided to go after the president on Solyndra but the cornerstone of the message is not about corruption, it is smartly about wasting taxpayer money and more importantly from a strategic perspective, incompetence. The video attempts to connect a perceived Obama weakness; big spender, with a Romney strength; strong manager and fiscally prudent. It is always far better for a campaign to use a negative like Solyndra as representative of a larger problem. Add to that, this new Crossroads spot about the Obama administration's misuse of public funds and you get a common theme of incompetence. That is the comparison team Romney wants above all; Romney leadership and managerial efficiency and Obama incompetence. If that theme dominates the next 60 days, Romney will be in the lead by mid-summer.
- The brutal Houla massacre in Syria and the subsequent expelling of Syrian diplomats from western countries will get substantial media coverage for the next 48 hours and perhaps shift the focus of the presidential campaign (if only temporarily) to foreign affairs. From a political perspective, this has the potential to help President Obama. The president has solid ratings on foreign policy and any time the national conversation shifts even slightly away from economic conditions is a good thing for the White House.
- U.S. home prices ended the first quarter of this year at the lowest level since the housing crisis began in 2007. According to a story in today's Wall Street Journal, the Case-Shiller index of home prices in the top 10 metropolitan areas was down nearly 3 percent in March from the previous year. Obviously this is problematic for the White House, especially if there is not marked improvement on the jobs front.
As the campaign slides into June, the following is our take on the latest polling data in relation to history and the current political milieu:
- Yes, President Barack Obama's job approval rating of 48 percent is near the historical average for a first-term president at this point in the campaign, but in the context of perceptions of the direction of the country and the economy... it is worse than it looks. Obama's rating is ahead of recent presidents who failed to win reelection; Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush had approval ratings of 38 percent and 41 percent at this time in 1980 and 1992. At the same time, Obama's rating is below those of past winners; Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were at 56 percent and 52 percent approval. Looking at the historic Gallup data, it is striking how closely President Obama's approval trend mirrors that of George W. Bush, who was also at 48 percent at this point and went on to win a narrow victory in 2004. But 2004 was a national security election (the first post 9/11 election) and Bush was strong on that issue. This year will be an economic issue election and Obama is weak in that area. The parallel doesn't hold. Obama's approval rating likely needs to be higher than Bush's (50 percent or better) to win.
- This may be the only chart that matters in 2012. The slight downtick in the unemployment rate appears to directly correlate with a recent improvement in Obama's approval rating. While still quite high historically, the unemployment rate has fallen in 6 of the past 7 months. Similarly, Obama's monthly approval average has risen in 6 of the past 7 months. While these changes are slight, they indicate a major opportunity for President Obama; a significant drop in unemployment could move his approval rating into the 50 percent+ range where reelection becomes substantially more likely.
- Pay attention to the "disapproval" rating as well. For the first time in months, Obama's average approval rating on all public polls exceeds his disapproval rating (by a single point). However, the president's virtual 1 to 1 approval/disapproval rating (48 percent to 47 percent) is still not good and suggests an extremely polarized electorate (no new news there). There is little or no neutral ground for this president (similar in that way to the 2004 Bush).
- Obama and Romney remain in a statistical tie in our trial heat average. While there is no clear leader at this point, the trend is toward Romney and that may continue. With a convention and official nomination yet to come this summer, Romney will continue to solidify support as Republicans and conservative independents continue to coalesce in supporting him. Our sense is that this will be a "base" election. That means it is less about persuading voters (although there will be some of that with swing voters, of course) and more about getting out each party's base voters.
- Which brings us to voter intensity: at this point in time, Obama core voting segments lag Romney groups in terms of enthusiasm. As National Journal's Charlie Cook points out, there appears to be a relative lack of enthusiasm among key parts of Obama's base. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll, 81 percent of all voters rate themselves as highly interested in the upcoming election. While a historically above-average 83 percent of African Americans are highly-interested, just 68 percent of Latinos and 64 percent of young voters said the same. Obama won big with both these groups in 2008, and currently leads Romney by 34 points among Latinos. The reverse is true for GOP voting blocs: Tea Party supporters and Republicans were at 90 percent and 88 percent highly interested, respectively.
- In the first few polls released since his gay marriage announcement, this appears to have been a wash politically. The trial heat poll results and his approval and favorability ratings have not moved meaningfully. Sixty-two percent of voters say the announcement will not affect their presidential vote, and those who say it would are evenly split on whether it is a positive or negative.
- Obama is a more likable candidate than Romney. The question is whether Romney can close the gap enough to make it a non-issue. Currently, by a 2-to-1 margin, voters are more likely to pick Obama as more likable (60 - 31 percent). As we mentioned two weeks ago, Romney does hold the edge on being perceived as able to handle the economy -- an especially important criteria this year. However, this general likability deficit does present a challenge that will be difficult to make headway against in the coming months -- for well-known figures, general likability is one of the hardest perceptions to change -- at least in the positive direction. As we have said before, Romney doesn't need to be more likeable than Obama. But he does need to shrink the gap so that there is not a significant candidate difference. If Romney cannot do that, this will be a real problem.
We will be back in two weeks. Thanks again to John Zirinsky and Allison Quigley for their contributions to this analysis. 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.)