Three Months From E-Day: What do the National Polls Tell Us?

Obama v Romney: polls in 2011 and 2012

We are approaching the final three months of the US Presidential race. Despite the hundreds of millions spent on advertising already, the polls have barely moved all year and show most Americans firmly in one camp or the other already, a nation ideologically polarised in a way it has not been for generations.

Obama v McCain: polls in 2008

In the Spring and Summer of 2008, Obama consistently polled in the 46-48% range against McCain. He led consistently but narrowly, and was unable to get to the magic 50% mark. The differences between national polling in 2008 and 2012 are minimal. While Obama just can’t break 50%, Romney hasn’t led in the much-watched Real Clear Politics polling average since the autumn of last year.

The incumbent’s job approval rating is probably the most studied polling number in US Presidential re-election campaigns. Gallup has been tracking Presidential job approval since 1937 (!) so there is plenty of historical data to sink one’s teeth into. An approval above 50% is held to more-or-less guarantee re-election, while Presidents’ re-election campaigns start to get into deep trouble as their approval drops into the mid 40s.

According to Gallup, in the year of Bush’s re-election campaign, his approval ratings the very high 40s and low 50s (his slide into the mire came during his second term). Obama has spent pretty much all of 2012 trading in a narrow range of 45-50% approval. Bush Jnr. won re-election narrowly enough, with a margin of barely 2% in Ohio making the crucial difference, so Obama, with slightly lower approval than Bush in 2004, is clearly in the danger zone.

For comparison, by the summer of 1980, Carter’s job approval according to Gallup was consistently in the 30s, as was George Bush Snr.’s in the summer of 1992. Gallup didn’t poll job approval for Gerald Ford after May 1976, but in the Spring, his approval ratings were in the high 40s, almost exactly mirroring Obama’s. Although Ford wasn’t re-elected, he lost Wisconsin by less than 2% and, you’ve guessed it, Ohio by a wafer thin 0.27%, and a reversal of both results would have seen him re-elected.

Obama’s approval rating puts him in the danger zone, but far from in the death zone. Perhaps the most reassuring factor from his point of view is that he is consistently polling better in the key swing states that will decide the election than he is across the country, a subject I will return to in a future article.

If it’s advantage Obama so far – albeit a narrow one – what might change things in Romney’s favour?

Looking back at 2008 campaign, there were three clear surges in the polls. Obama and McCain both had their respective convention bounces. It is difficult to remember that for a week or so, Sarah Palin helped McCain’s support surge before retreating just as quickly. Finally, through September and October, Obama’s poll ratings slowly, but steadily and relentlessly, climbed as he cruised to a comfortable win on the back of his dominance both of the airwaves and the ground campaign.

Will that happen this time? Obama had an enormous warchest in 2008, able to fund even an enormously expensive half-hour prime time documentary advertising spot. With Romney outraising Obama considerably and a 2010 Supreme Court decision effectively removing all restraint on third party spending on advertising in US political campaigns, Obama will almost certainly fight the final three months of this campaign at a significant disadvantage on the airwaves.

Obama has had one huge advantage over the Summer. Despite his huge warchest, the Romney campaign is pretty much unable to spend money until the Republican National Convention is over and the Primary Election campaign is formally over. American campaign finance laws say that money raised for a Presidential Primary campaign can only be spent during the period of the Primary. After the long and expensive Republican Primary campaign, Romney’s Primary campaign account is pretty much empty, and what is left needs to spent on salaries and field offices.

With Romney TV advertising presence minimal, Obama has poured money into advertising in swing states over the Summer, and much of it has been pretty brutal, seeking to define Romney as a tax-dodging plutocrat who made his millions from shipping American jobs to China. Swing state polls indicate this might be making a difference. Not only is Obama polling better where it matters, but Romney’s negatives are much higher in those places too.

In September, however, Romney will be able to blitz the airwaves. With third-party sympathisers already spending hundreds of millions attacking Obama, it’s hard to see a negative ad war from Romney himself doing much to change people’s opinions of a sitting President they already know a lot about. With Romney’s personal popularity ratings in the toilet, a smart Romney campaign will leave the Obama-bashing to outsiders and focus on building up their own candidate. Romney is, as we saw in London, an awful campaigner on the stump, however, and it may not work. But it seems to be one of the few paths available for Team Romney to break the election open.

As I noted above, the party conventions do move the polls, albeit usually briefly. Probably the only way to make the convention bounce last for Romney is to pick a Vice Presidential nominee who adds to the ticket. To me Chris Christie, the popular governor of New Jersey, is the candidate most likely to turn things round for Romney. With proven experience in governing and proven appeal to moderate swing voters, he adds a lot. If nothing else, he puts New Jersey and its 14 electoral votes in play and probably turns around a Romney campaign in neighbouring Pennsylvania which currently seems doomed.

The scuttlebutt is that Romney is wary of being eclipsed by Christie, as McCain was overshadowed by Palin in 2008, and is unlikely to take that option. That would be a major mistake in my view, but in that event perhaps the only other VP nominee with the potential to be a campaign changer is Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. He is an effective campaigner with a bullet-proof CV and a compelling personal story, but will his deep economic conservatism play with working-class whites in the Midwest? All the other names in the frame strike me as Just Another White Dude and unlikely to make much difference either way.

The final factor which might be crucial in the final months is the campaigns’ ground operations. Obama has a huge network of field offices in place in swing states to organise door-to-door canvassing and get out the vote operations – 60 in Florida alone. He has also ramped up the already impressive level of technological sophistication and organisation his ground war team displayed in 2008. Many, including me, had assumed that he would not be able to recruit anything like the number of grassroots canvassers he had in 2008, but interestingly he is raising more money from small donors this time than he did last time. This is an area where Obama will have an advantage, but just how much remains to be seen.

Finally, there are the Presidential debates. While this is hardly an area where Romney naturally excels, he will be prepped by some of the best in the business and it has been a long time since a Presidential debate proved decisive in America. A desperate Obama, trailing a long way behind, may have felt compelled to use his undoubted debating skills to go for the jugular, but real life is not the West Wing, and Obama with a wafer-thin lead is unlikely to take major risks.

When all is said and done, if some major event external to the campaign doesn’t happen, the most likely scenario at this point seems to be that Obama grinds his way to re-election after a less than edifying campaign. With the economy in a mess, in the US and globally, and the Middle East a tinderbox, the capacity for ‘major events’ to happen is clearly large. Few of the possible major events are positive for Obama, who must now hope the campaign remains mired in trench warfare.