WASHINGTON -- Few strategists watch American politics with greater sophistication than Peter D. Hart. In addition to his work for Democratic candidates, the Washington-based pollster has been conducting opinion surveys for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal since 1989. He’s one of the rare individuals in politics whose judgment is respected by insiders in both parties. So, when he has something to say, he’s well worth paying attention to.
Hart has just sent out his preview of the 2012 election, now less than six months away. His assessment may come as a rude surprise to those in his party who are feeling bullish about President Obama’s chances.
“This election is no better than a 50-50 proposition for the president,” concludes Hart, basing that on his polling, focus-group discussions and personal conversations with professional pols.
Like others who have been watching the campaign up close, he perceives an electorate that is “wanting wholesale change for the fourth election in a row.” Comparing 2012 to 1992 -- the last time a president was unseated -- he notes that economic confidence, as measured by the latest University of Michigan Consumer Confidence Index, is at 76. It was 77 when the first president Bush was headed for defeat.
Hart’s advice to election-watchers: Don’t lose sight of the basics -- how voters feel about the direction of the country and the economy. Importantly, he says, Mitt Romney’s poll numbers are better than Obama’s when voters are asked which man has good ideas for how to improve the economy.
Voter enthusiasm and commitment are also on the Republican side, at least for now. “The candidate may be ‘fired up and ready-to-go,’” he writes.
“But wherever I go, the volunteers who cared so much in 2008 seem so much less engaged and enthusiastic.” Perhaps Obama’s willingness to endorse gay marriage will provide a badly needed spur to Democratic volunteers, he speculates.
On the flip side, Obama’s message of economic balance and fairness (which Hart and Bill McInturff, his Republican counterpart on the NBC/Journal surveys, tested without the president’s name attached) gives the president a decided advantage by reaching across partisan lines. Romney’s message, on the other hand, “captures only core Republican voters. ... In a challenging economy, this provides an important toehold for the president, and it is one the Romney campaign does not have an answer for.”
Another challenge facing Romney: likability. A presidential ballot “is the single most personal vote a person can cast,” Hart believes. And with few exceptions, the candidate who is more appealing on a personal level usually wins. Romney lags Obama, often by wide margins, on compassion, consistency, caring about average people, honesty and straightforwardness.
But if voters connect Romney’s business expertise with their desire to see someone manage government finances, the Republican “will have a powerful pair of issues working for him.”
Approximately 180 days out from the election, Hart quotes Sven Holmes, a retired federal judge and full-time political junkie, who has concluded that 2012 will either be a German shepherd or a Doberman election.
“The German shepherd election is one in which the dog (the electorate) looks at an intruder (the officeholders) and barks and growls with great ferocity but in the end, rarely attacks or does much damage. By contrast the Doberman attacks with the intent to do bodily harm,” writes Hart. “The question to be resolved is whether the voters will just bark or attack.”