With both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney increasingly focused on their all-but-certain contest, now is a good time to look at their relative standing in head-to-head polls – a baseline for the race to come.
Until mid-spring of the election year, a president’s approval rating historically has provided a better gauge of his re-election prospects than horse-race polls. That starts to change around this point in the year, when polls matching the two candidates begin to have some reliability at forecasting the race, according to data compiled by the Gallup organization.
So what do the polls show? With a couple of outliers, the numbers offer a pretty consistent view: Obama has a small, but consistent, lead in the national matchups and in key swing states. Of 13 major national polls taken since the beginning of March, two showed Romney with slight leads, one showed a tie and ten showed Obama with leads of between 2 and 12 percentage points. A simple average shows an Obama lead of slightly more than 4 points.
If the economy is the main force driving the election, that result should not surprise anyone. The seasonally adjusted number of new jobs created in the economy has risen by more than 200,000 for each of the last three months, and based on preliminary data, economists expect Friday’s jobs report for March to continue that pattern. Gallup’s measure of economic confidence in March hit its highest point since January 2008 – a year before Obama took office. The firm’s Economic Confidence Index, which measures both what people think about current conditions and their outlook for the future, has been rising largely because of people feeling better about where the economy is headed, Gallup reported.
State-by-state polls mirror the national results. Gallup, for example, periodically polls voters in a dozen swing states: Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico in the West; Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania in the Midwest and industrial mid-Atlantic regions; Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in the South; and New Hampshire. Their latest such survey, conducted March 20-26, showed Obama with a 51%-42% lead in those states – the first time Gallup has found Obama with a lead on that measure.
Obama’s lead in the swing states came largely from independent voters, Gallup found. Since January, Obama’s support among independents in the swing states has remained fairly stable while Romney’s has dropped. As a result, Obama had a 48%-39% lead among swing-state independents, the poll found. Both candidates were pulling about nine-in-ten voters in their own parties.
Among independents in swing states, Obama did particularly well with women, Gallup found – leading by 14 points among them, as opposed to one point among men. But pollsters cautioned against assuming the shift came as a result of the well publicized fight between the administration and Republicans over contraceptive coverage. The vast majority of female swing state independents (80%) said they did not know what Romney’s position on contraception was, although the one-fifth who said they did know leaned against him. About 40% of independent women in the swing states said they knew about Obama’s position, and they were closely divided on whether they agreed with him. Obama’s own aides have stressed the degree to which women voters respond to economic conditions.
Polls of individual states back up the Gallup finding about the swing states as a whole. Take two of the largest – Florida and Ohio. Both were surveyed in March by two organizations, Quinnipiac University, which does traditional telephone polls, which does computer-dialed surveys and which assumes a more Republican electorate than many other pollsters. In Florida, Quinnipiac showed Obama with a seven-point lead over Romney, 49%-42%, and Rassmussen had Obama up by three points, 46%-43%. In Ohio, the two found Obama up by 8 points and 6 points, respectively.
Does that mean Obama can rest easy? No. His overall job approval remains tepid, a sign of continued vulnerability. And events such as a slowdown in the European economy that hurts U.S. growth or a Supreme Court ruling on his healthcare bill or a crisis in the Middle East or something else completely unforeseen could easily scramble the picture. For now, though, Obama approaches the fall campaign resembling George W. Bush (polarizing, but in the lead) more than his father.