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Morning Jay: The State of the Race, Four Months Out

6:00 AM, Jul 9, 2012 • By JAY COST
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Give the media enough time, and they will spin straw into gold – for Democrats, naturally. And so it has been over the last two weeks since the Obamacare ruling was handed down. We have seen media pundits debate whether the ruling hurts Mitt Romney. We have seen them criticize Team Romney for not being johnny-on-the-spot with a reaction to a ruling that virtually nobody expected. We have seen them speculate that Team Obama’s Bain attacks are working, despite a dearth of hard evidence and no serious indication from the Romney campaign that they are worth responding to. And on and on it goes.

obama, convention

With the media consistently confusing and obscuring the true state of the race, it is worth reviewing the key facts that will determine the parameters of the fall campaign.

There are four, in particular.

(1) Barack Obama is an unpopular president. You might never pick up on this if your only sources for information are NBC Nightly News and the New York Times. But that does not make it untrue:

Which president was the last one to win reelection with a job approval less than 50 percent among the electorate?

Don’t worry if you are having trouble answering. It’s a trick question. Since they’ve been asking the question, the exit polls and the National Election Study have not found such a victor.

It is worth pointing out that the polls in the RealClearPolitics average are mostly polls of adults, which tend to oversample Democrats. This means that Obama’s standing with the actual electorate is probably weaker than these numbers suggest.

Additionally, Obama’s numbers are substantially worse on the three top issues of this campaign. The recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Obama’s overall net job approval at -1, but on the economy he stood at -11. The Fox News poll found him with a net job approval of +5, but his standing on health care was -8. And a Gallup poll from May found that just 39 percent of respondents trusted Obama to handle the deficit better than Mitt Romney.

The story is basically the same in the swing states. In state after state, we see Obama pulling in about 47 percent of the vote, mostly among registered voters, which is in standing with his national job approval rating.

(2) Impressions about Obama seem mostly to be set. Not only is the president’s job approval under 50 percent, but it has been this way for most of the last 30 months. There have only been two exceptions when the president enjoyed a brief bounce – In late 2010 for signing the tax cut extension and then in May 2011 after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Otherwise, we have to go back to November 2009 to find this president regularly pulling in more than 50 percent approval. And again, that was with adults.

(3) The economy is hurting the president. Unemployment is high. Real incomes are stagnant. The industrial sector is slowing to a crawl. Businesses are not hiring enough to keep up with population growth. The sorts of jobs being added are not high paying jobs. And so on.

No incumbent president has ever won reelection amid an economy as weak as the current one. The closest anybody ever came was Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. But then of course he helped defeat the Nazis. What’s more, George H.W. Bush lost with an economy that was actually stronger than the current state. And he had won the Gulf War just 22 months prior.  

President Obama still can use George W. Bush for a great deal of political cover. Most people blame Bush for the recession itself, and the core Democratic electorate (roughly 45 percent of the voting public) seems to buy the notion that Obama has done everything that could possibly have been done to jumpstart economic growth. Yet the evidence suggests that this is insufficient for the independent voters who swing elections – which explains why he’s consistently polled terribly on the economy.

(4) Romney will have an opportunity to define himself. Team Obama has run hard against Mitt Romney in the swing states for outsourcing jobs, offshore bank accounts, and the like. Team Romney has been notably silent, not committing resources to rebut these charges. One reason might be that the charges are not resonating. Importantly, a new Gallup poll of the swing states shows no statistically significant change in the preferences of registered voters since early May.

It is important to remember that Team Romney will use the Republican National Convention to introduce him to the public. Of course, the Bain attacks are eventually going to damage his reputation, at least a little bit – but Romney has a solid and compelling story to tell. He saved the Olympics. He was a pragmatic governor in deep blue Massachusetts. He’s a loyal family man. And so on. Voters are going to have all the facts about Romney come November – the positive and the negative.

It makes sense for Romney to hold off until the Republican convention to do that, as that will be the time when voters start becoming engaged. By the same token, it is not at all clear that Team Obama is making the right choice to go after Romney so early. If voters are not paying much attention, these attacks might be played out by the fall without ever having had their full effect. Again, the Gallup poll suggests that they have not made much of an impact just yet, and so also does Team Romney's silence. If the campaign thought the Obama ads were having an impact in Ohio, for instance, they'd surely be on the air responding to them. 

So, what does all this mean? Well, I’ll put it this way. InTrade has the odds of Obama winning at 56 percent. Nate Silver has it at 67 percent. Both of those odds look far too high to me. If I were trading futures contracts on this election, I’d sell at both prices. This president is in deep trouble.

UPDATE: Franklin Roosevelt won reelection in 1936 with an economy that was weaker than the current one. I meant to suggest that no president in the postwar era has won in an economy as weak as this one, but neglected to add that important qualifier. I regret the error.

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.

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