A choice or a referendum? With Mitt Romney emerging as the likely Republican nominee, that is the question on which voters can now start focusing. And a new ABC/Washington Post poll shows how crucial their answers will be.
If the election is framed as a judgment on Obama’s record – if voters ask, “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” – the advantage clearly rests with Romney. Only one in 10 Americans rates the state of the union as good, and only three in 10 say the country is headed in the right direction. On every question concerning his handling of the economy, the president’s rating remains below 50 percent.
But the picture changes dramatically when voters compare Obama to Romney. In a head-to-head matchup, the Democrat leads the Republican 51 percent to 46 percent. Asked who better understands the economic problems facing Americans, voters prefer Obama by 17 points. His margins are similar on handling of terrorism and foreign policy. If Americans think of the election as a choice between two specific alternatives, Obama becomes the favorite.
Romney’s strongest bet remains the weak economy. Unemployment has dipped to 8.3 percent, but that’s still devastatingly high for many families, and the real jobless rate – including discouraged job seekers and part-time workers – is about 15 percent.
The president can argue all he wants that he did not cause the economic downturn and that it would have been worse without his policies, but the brute fact remains: The president owns the economy. He cannot run on slogans like “Happy Days Are Here Again” or “Morning in America.” The best he can do is “Things Are Getting Better” or “The Other Guys Would Be Worse” – not exactly clarion calls to arms.
Obama vastly outspent Republican opponent John McCain in 2008, but the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case has drastically altered the landscape since then. Super PACs backing Romney have already demonstrated their ability to raise tons of money and spend it on highly negative ads. The “swift boat” attacks against John Kerry in 2004 will look like rowboat assaults in 2012.
Obama’s best argument is that the unemployment number is dropping, slowly but steadily, so don’t change course and screw things up. The public’s mood is definitely brightening, with the president’s overall approval rating reaching 50 percent for the first time in many months. As a result, Republicans are in the awkward position of almost rooting for economic failure. One tipoff: their anguished protest against Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad in which Clint Eastwood praises the recovery of Detroit.