Now that Rick Santorum has “suspended” his campaign, we can stop pretending and can say what has been clear for weeks: Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for president. The general election campaign has begun.
In some quarters, it is assumed that President Barack Obama will be re-elected without too much difficulty. There are reports that staffers at Obama’s Chicago headquarters consider Romney’s candidacy a joke.
One suspects the adults there take a different view. For the fundamentals say that this will be a seriously contested race, with many outcomes possible. Obama’s job-approval numbers in the RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls hover at 48 percent positive, 47 percent negative. That’s on the cusp between victory and defeat.
Obama leads Romney in recent polls by 48 to 43 percent. Note that Obama’s percentage does not exceed his job approval. And Romney does not maximize the potential Republican vote.
Romney carries bruises, some self-inflicted, from the primary process, and his unfavorable numbers far outnumber his favorables. He got more negative than positive media coverage (interestingly, on Fox News as well as mainstream media) even as he was winning the nomination.
One reason is that his campaign and the super PAC backing him have spent most of their ad dollars battering down successive rivals who rose in the polls. The positive case for Romney has gotten much less of an airing.
But general elections involving sitting presidents usually turn out to be verdicts on the incumbent. Challengers who meet minimal standards tend to win if most voters want the incumbent out.
Which is, or is close to being, the case today. Note that the two national pollsters who limit their samples to likely voters, Rasmussen and Bloomberg, show the race a tie. Obama does better with the larger universes of registered voters and all adults. But polls show that this year, unlike 2008, Republicans are more enthusiastic about voting than Democrats.
You see a similar picture when you look at polls in the 11 states that were close last time and are generally considered targets now. Not on the list are Indiana and Missouri, whose 21 electoral votes seem safely Republican this time, and New Mexico, whose five electoral votes seem safe Democratic.
Recent polls in these 11 states show Obama ahead of Romney in every state but Iowa. But they also show him topping 50 percent only in Wisconsin.
Obama seems to be running slightly better than last time in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina, and slightly weaker in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Iowa, and about the same in Virginia, Colorado and Nevada, with no recent polling in New Hampshire.
Obama has not sewn up any of these 11 states, which have 144 electoral votes. Without them, and without the 11 in Indiana and one in Nebraska he carried last time, he would have only 205 electoral votes, 65 short of the needed majority.
And 2008 is not the only possible benchmark. In the 2010 congressional elections, Republicans carried the popular vote for the House in all 11 of these states. They went into the election with only 56 of these states’ 126 House seats and came out with 82.
Voters’ issue focus this year looks more like that of 2010 than 2008. Even polls showing Obama ahead also show most voters rate him negatively on the top issues, jobs and the economy. Neither the stimulus package nor Obamacare evokes positive feelings.
The president has been reduced to trash-talking the Supreme Court, leaving his press secretary to tidy up afterward. He has been spending a week playing up the Buffett Rule, a tax proposal raising capital gains rates on very high earners that would net little revenue.
That polls well in a vacuum. But more extended surveys, such as the one recently conducted for the moderate Third Way group, show most voters prefer limiting government and putting economic growth ahead of “an economy based on fairness.”
That’s closer to Romney’s view than Obama’s. Obama and his party have bet everything on the notion that economic distress would make Americans favor a bigger government. That turned out to be a losing bet.
Romney and his party are betting that voters are ready for market-oriented reforms. Despite his political tin ear, Romney has been making progress in honing this message.
Meanwhile, Obama is flailing. That’s not the behavior of an incumbent president confident of winning re-election.
— Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelBarone.