This is fascinating. A new Politico/GWU national poll shows Barack Obama pulling ahead of Mitt Romney in the presidential race, seizing a three-point lead and hitting the 50 percent mark overall. The results are within the margin of error and not markedly different from last month's numbers, but Team Obama is circulating the numbers as evidence that their man is creating some statistical daylight between himself and his challenger. But one of the pollsters who conducted the survey points to a number of unusual results lurking beneath the 50/47 "top-line" outcome:
Overall, Obama leads Romney by just 3 points on the ballot (50 percent to 47 percent) – which before we rounded up, is actually a 2.6 point lead and only up a half-a-percentage point from the 2.1 point lead for Obama in our last Battleground poll in early August. In our latest POLITICO-George Washington University Battleground Poll with middle-class families, which comprise about 54 percent of the total American electorate and usually split in their vote behavior between Republicans and Democrats, Romney holds a 14-point advantage (55 percent to 41 percent). Middle-class families are more inclined to believe the country is on the wrong track (34 percent right direction, 62 percent wrong track), are more likely to hold an unfavorable view of Obama (48 percent favorable, 51 percent unfavorable), and hold a more favorable view of Romney (51 percent favorable, 44 percent unfavorable) and Paul Ryan (46 percent favorable, 35 percent unfavorable) than the overall electorate. These middle-class families also hold a majority disapproval rating on the job Obama is doing as president (45 percent approve, 54 percent disapprove), and turn even more negative toward Obama on specific areas; the economy 56 percent disapprove; spending 61 percent disapprove; taxes, 53 percent disapprove; Medicare 48 percent disapprove; and even foreign policy 50 percent disapprove.
All of this data make clear that Romney has won the strong support of middle-class families and is leading the president on an overwhelming majority of key measurements beyond just the ballot. In fact, when respondents were asked who, Obama or Romney, would best handle a variety of issues, Romney led on all but one including the economy (+9 percent), foreign policy (+3 percent), spending (+15 percent), taxes (+7 percent), Medicare (+2 percent), and jobs (+10 percent). Ironically, the one measurement Obama led Romney on was “standing up for the middle class” (+8 Obama), reinforcing that often the Democrats win the message war with the middle class, but not their hearts and souls.
Otherwise, there are a few interesting points from the extensive internals published from the survey. First, Romney is leading by 2 among independents, 46/44, which Obama won by 8 in 2008. The gender gap favored Obama by 14 in his last election (+13 among women, +1 among men), but he’s down to a +4 in this poll; Romney wins men by 6, 51/45, while Obama wins women by 10, 53/43. Romney wins married voters by 14 points, 55/41, and wins married women by five at 51/46 ... One more data point: Despite a poll that came out last week, this survey shows Romney winning the Catholic vote by eight points, 51/43 ... The Catholic vote has been a pretty clear bellwether in American elections over the last several decades.
So let me get this straight: Mitt Romney leads among independents, leads with middle-class households by double digits, leads with likely voters on six of seven issues (including large advantages on jobs, spending and the economy), and holds an eight-point edge with the bellwether Catholic demo -- yet he trails overall by three points? Maybe it's a terrible partisan split, you might think. Not so. It's D+3, which is completely reasonable. These numbers don't quite add up, but they do suggest that while the incumbent is in real trouble on substance, his challenger's style-points struggles are real. To that end, one possible explanatory factor is Romney taking a hit on personal favorability, a trend we also spotted in the battlegrounds poll earlier today. From the Politico numbers:
His unfavorable rating ticked up from 46 percent to 49 percent over the past seven weeks, as the share viewing him favorably held steady at 46 percent. Personal likability boosts the president, who is viewed favorably by 53 percent.
The Obama campaign's relentless "kill Romney" strategy has paid dividends. They've gone scorched-earth since day one, effectively frustrating Romney's ability to break through the "likeability" and "relatability" barrier with many voters. Part of the issue here is Romney himself. He's an exceedingly kind and generous man, and a very capable leader, but he often seems awkward and aloof. Voters may believe that Romney might be the better president on paper, but they don't think they really like him all that much. Between Obama's attacks and the media's endless "what about your gaffes?!" pile-on, Romney's been unable to define himself, which is a real challenge. Still, given Obama's weak fundamentals, it's still a winnable race for the GOP. Writing in the New York Post, polling maven Jay Cost argues there's still a long road ahead:
It’s only September. For political junkies, this statement makes little sense. They’ve been paying close attention to the campaign for months now, and are giddy over the fact that Election Day is quickly approaching. But political junkies don’t swing elections. In fact, something like 25 percent of voters make their voting decisions after September, and anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent will make their final choice in the last week.
This is why the polls have often swung wildly in the final weeks of a campaign. It’s how “Dewey defeated Truman” in 1948. It’s how a blowout Richard Nixon victory in 1968 turned into a squeaker. It’s how Gerald Ford closed a 10-point gap and actually had a lead in the final Gallup poll in 1976. It’s how a toss-up race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan finished with a GOP blowout in 1980. It’s how Bill Clinton went from being up 9 in mid-September, 1992 to a tie with George H.W. Bush by the end of October. It’s how George W. Bush went from being 10 points down in September 2000 to the 43rd president in January 2001. And it’s how the very same Bush “blew” the 11-point lead he enjoyed in late September 2004, defeating John Kerry by just 2 points.
In other words, September polls are extremely volatile. And this year’s volatility is compounded by the late date of the Democratic National Convention. It was, in fact, the latest party convention in US history. And when the polls are bouncing around a lot, the chances are much greater that they will disagree with one another — which is exactly what we’re seeing right now ... So sit tight, politics fans: There’s plenty more to come.
The million-dollar question is whether the mid-September poll consensus (close race nationally, Obama ahead in most swing states) will hold steady through November, or whether we'll experience the 1948/1968/1976/1992/2000/2004 public opinion rollercoaster Cost describes above.