President Obama and Mitt Romney on the campaign trail. (Associated Press photos )
WASHINGTON – Since mid-April, the average price for a gallon of regular gas has dropped 40 cents, President Obama has announced support for same-sex marriage, government statisticians have delivered two disappointing monthly jobs reports, tensions have ebbed and flowed with Iran and Mitt Romney has formally clinched the Republican presidential nomination.
And the presidential polls? Flat-lined.
Contradicting reams of punditry, national polls have not moved an inch as a result of those events – not to mention the lesser political battles that have animated cable news programs.
In Gallup’s daily polling, to take one example, Romney and President Obama were tied 46% to 46% on April 11. Two months later, the poll had Obama up one point, 46% to 45%, a statistically identical result. For more than seven weeks, neither candidate’s standing has moved more than three points – well within the poll’s margin of error.
Instead of a race, the campaign for president has turned into something more closely resembling trench warfare: Dug-in armies, intense exchanges of fire, no movement.
The lack of movement is problematic for Obama. Both candidates, of course, would like to have broken free by now. But for Romney, just keeping Obama below 50% counts as an advantage, on the assumption that a majority of late-deciders are more likely to vote against the incumbent.
By contrast, many Democratic strategists had hoped that by now, Obama would have started to build a lead over the Republican, whom they derided earlier this year as a weak nominee with little popularity even within his own party.
The stasis reflects the electorate. Over the last decade, voters have become polarized into warring partisan camps more than at any point since the 1930s. Obama and Romney each get nearly 90% support from their respective partisans, most of whom have strongly held views. Meantime, pollsters report that the number of undecided voters hovers somewhere in the high single digits, with even fewer in some swing states.
“Two big things are going on,” said Stanley B. Greenberg, who served as the chief pollster for Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and Al Gore’s in 2000. The poor condition of the economy holds Obama’s vote down, he said. At the same time, demographic trends that favor Democrats – an increasing number of nonwhite voters and a greater percentage of college-educated professionals – pushes his vote up.
Those two opposing forces have combined to lock the race into a nearly even division that has proved stubbornly resistant to change.
“Obama right now is a 47% candidate” while “Romney is a 45% candidate,” Greenberg said, reflecting the findings of his owns polls and several other independent surveys that show Obama with a slight lead. “Structurally, it will probably stay there for some time.”
To be sure, the election remains nearly five months away. In 2004, the last presidential reelection contest, President George W. Bushdid not establish a lead over Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, until August. (That lead took hold before the airing of “Swift boat” television ads attacking Kerry’s war record, which many Democrats have blamed for Kerry’s defeat.)
But already this year, the battle has been fiercely joined – at least in key swing districts. Parts of Ohio – particularly the Columbus area – Virginia and North Carolina already are seeing campaign commercials at near-saturation levels.
The lack of movement in the campaign – something that shows up generally in polls of individual states as well as in the national polls – suggests that many voters have tuned out the advertising din, perhaps until the fall presidential debates.
Indeed, a significant number of voters who currently call themselves undecided may simply not vote, notes Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. Unlike supporters of either Obama or Romney, the undecided on average report very little enthusiasm for voting this year, he said.
From the Obama campaign’s standpoint, that may be just as well, Abramowitz added. The swing voters in swing states mostly disapprove of his performance in office.
“They don’t care for either candidate, but to the extent that they vote, they’re more likely to vote for Romney,” Abramowitz said. Disapproval of an incumbent’s record in office usually trumps doubts about the challenger, he noted. “The election’s more about Obama than about Romney.”
For Obama, the best hope may be the campaign’s efforts to register new voters, Abramowitz said. Unlike the undecided, the unregistered – many of whom are black or Latino – tend to approve of Obama’s job performance, although they also report low enthusiasm about voting.
Beyond voter registration, ideas abound on both sides about breaking the stalemate.
On Sunday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker became the latest Republican to say that Romney would do better if he “goes big and goes bold.”
“I don’t think we win if it’s just about a referendum on Barack Obama,” he said on CBS’ Face the Nation.
The Romney campaign, preferring to keep voters focused on Obama and the poor economy, so far has not taken that advice.
On the Democratic side, Greenberg and former Clinton advisor James Carville circulated a toughly worded memo Monday that criticized Obama’s emphasis on the number of new jobs created during his administration. Bragging about signs of economic growth only alienates swing voters, most of whom are suffering economically and don’t see improvement in their lives, the two men said, basing their conclusions on recent focus groups in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative,” they wrote, arguing that Obama needs to put more emphasis on raising the taxes of wealthy Americans and show more empathy for the economic struggles of middle-class families.