The Slowly Improving Obama Landscape

As I indicated this morning, I’m not buying any “the presidential race is over!” talk just yet, until I see a lot more empirical evidence.

So if you (a) don’t think the President’s convention bounce is going to persist in any significant way (and there is growing evidence it may not), and (b) also don’t think Mitt’s multiple errors during the last week or so will matter in the end, how would you assess the race?

One series of takes is being offered this week by my favorite conservative number-cruncher, Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, who published a “why Obama should be favored” post this morning, to be followed by a “why Romney should be favored” piece tomorrow.

Today’s Trende analysis is interesting because he revisits six factors that led him back in January to conclude Obama had a nearly impossible task ahead of him. Now he concludes all six factors show at least some improvement in the incumbent’s situation:

1) Job approval. [In January] I wrote that “presidents rarely win many votes of those who disapprove of their performance in office. In other words, Obama probably needs to be pretty close to 50 percent approval on Election Day to secure re-election.” At the time, the president’s job approval was 46.8 percent.

Today, the president’s job approval stands at 49.2 percent. If this is true on Election Day, he’ll have a good chance of winning….

2) The economy. In January, the trends in the economy placed it somewhere between 1992 and 1960; it was solidly in the middle of years where incumbent parties lost their grip on the White House. A few days after that piece was published, the January jobs data exploded.

When I re-ran the analysis late last month, Obama’s position had improved a bit. The economy was beginning to look more like 1992, 2004 and 1976, which were very close elections….

3) Head-to-head polling. Back in January, the president was polling well below 50 percent in head-to-head surveys, both in the states and nationally. He was at 47.5 nationally, and at or below 47 percent in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada.

Perhaps reflecting the improved economy, that has changed. The president is at 48.5 percent nationally — just below the 49 percent he probably needs to win when you figure in third parties.

In the battleground states that I listed, he is at 49 percent in Pennsylvania, 48 percent in Michigan, 48.2 percent in Wisconsin, 48.5 percent in Ohio, 45 percent in North Carolina, 47.5 percent in Colorado, and 49 percent in Nevada. That is a strong polling position in almost all of those states.

4) Precedent.…. [I]t should concern Romney somewhat that he hasn’t been able to claim a lead in polling averages in almost a year now.

5) Contingencies. One of the main reasons that I thought Obama was in such deep trouble in early 2012 was that a number of large, negative contingencies loomed on the horizon. In fact, I probably would have bet a decent sum of money that at least one of the following three things would occur this year: (a) a Eurozone implosion; (b) gas eclipsing $5 a gallon; (c) Israel attacks Iran over its nuclear weapons program.

Somewhat amazingly, all three cans have been kicked down the road. And while there are many signs that the economy really might be softening right now, it is probably too late for that to affect the election. The economy is probably fully priced in at this point….

Only after covering these “fundamentals” does Sean go on to observe a sixth factor, which is soaking up most of the talk right now: Mitt Romney is a really, really bad candidate.

Now as regular readers know, I put much greater emphasis on messaging and the relationship of candidates to both base and swing voters than do either “fundamentalists” who consider campaigns irrelevant, or even careful empiricists like Trende who aren’t prone to looking very far under the numbers. I think Romney sucks as a candidate in no small part because he can’t talk about an agenda that is guaranteed to repel swing voters, and he can’t rely on his own record because it offends his base, which in turn is increasingly furious with him for refusing to talk about his agenda. It’s a situation that calls for a world-class pol, or a lot of help from the fundamentals. The absence of the latter is making the absence of the former more obvious, and worse.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.