So, About That Bain Controversy…Surprise! (Not)

The results of the latest CBS/NY Times poll (hat tip to Lucia for bringing this to my attention), which was in the field July 11-16 during the heart of the Bain controversy, has attracted more than its fair share of attention primarily because it has Mitt Romney holding a slim 2 point lead over Barack Obama, 45%-43%. (If you throw in leaners Romney is up 47%-46%). This is the first time Romney has “led” in a CBS/Times poll since January when he was still locked in a fight for the Republican nomination. Whenever the relative positions of the two candidates appear to change, it gets the pundits’ attention.   In truth, however, given the poll’s margin of error, the survey is showing what just about every survey of the race taken this year has shown, which is that the two candidates are essentially deadlocked.

However, this may not be what you expected if you were closely following the pronouncements from the punditocracy during the last two weeks. Despite my warning that the Bain controversy would likely have little impact on the race, the Kevin Drums and Rush Limbaughs of the pundits’ world were engaged in hand-to-hand combat in an effort frame Bain most favorably for their preferred candidate – which, of course, is one reason why I didn’t think Bain would have much impact.

The bigger reason, however, is that most voters have already made up their mind regarding who they will support, and those that haven’t aren’t really paying close attention to Bain. According to the Times survey, 38% of those surveyed are paying “some” attention to the race, while another 14% are paying “not much” and 3% “none”.   At the risk of provoking another Kevin Drum seizure, this is exactly the point I was making in my (edited) comment to Jamelle Bouie, when I noted that most of the roughly 30% of voters yet to make up their mind aren’t paying close attention to the presidential race, including specific campaign ads, at all.  (For the record, the Times survey indicates 79% of voters have made up their minds – even higher than I estimated.)

You are going to hear this from me again and again in the next several weeks, so let me apologize in advance.  The media’s fixation on the horse-race aspect of the race means they are going to exaggerate the importance of relatively trivial events, like the Romney tax returns (don’t we have a debate over releasing tax returns every four years?) because pundits and journalists that quote them are in a narrative-driven business cued to daily and even hourly deadlines.  Journalists have to file a story or more every day, and they depend on quotes and “analysis” from pundits who feed them their talking points.  If you are a political junkie, however, as are many of my readers, it is easy to get sucked into this daily narrative and lose sight of what really moves voters.  After you’ve seen the 39th analysis of why Romney isn’t releasing his tax returns, it’s easy to think this must be an important issue to most voters.  After all, Drum can’t be wrong, can he?  (Ok, it’s a rhetorical question.)

But outside the pundits’ echo chamber it’s not a very important issue – at least not to Joe and Jane Sixpack.  Instead, they’ve got deeper concerns – concerns that will determine how they vote come November.  And the number one concern is the economy.   June’s unemployment numbers, as you know, were disappointing, with only about 80,000 jobs created and the official unemployment rate still hovering above 8%. The real unemployment number is actually worse, however; if we include those who have simply stopped looking for work, the rate is probably closer to 15%.  Meanwhile, the second quarter GDP numbers are likely to show anemic growth as well, even as the first-quarter number is adjusted slightly downward.   In short, the economic news of late has not been good.

And this is where the CBS/Times survey is more revealing.   To begin, for most voters, this fall’s election is going to be primarily a referendum on Obama – not on Romney.  Only 29% of Romney supporters look on him with a “strongly favorable” attitude – but 37% support him because they “dislike” Obama.  The corresponding numbers of Obama supporters are 41% “strongly favorable” and only 23% “dislike” Romney.  This is why Bain and the tax issue aren’t gaining as much polling traction nationwide as the pundits anticipated.  According to the Times’ survey, Romney’s favorability rating, which was at 29% in April, actually went up 3% during the Bain controversy.

Obama, on the other, saw his favorability/unfavorability ratio drop significantly – largely because of continued pessimism over the economy.   By a margin of 55%-39%, more respondents “disapprove” than “approve” of Obama’s handling of the economy.  Almost 40% of respondents rate the economy as “bad” – 32% say it is “very bad”.   Only 24% of respondents think the economy is getting better – with 30% saying it is getting worse.  These trends matter because 93% of voters say that the economy is “extremely” (54%) or “very” (39%) important in determining how they will vote this fall.

But here’s the kicker, and why Obama is so vulnerable.  Fully 51% of those surveyed believe the condition of the national economy “is something the president can do a lot about”!  That’s up 10% from last September!  That is, as the economic downturn persists, people increasingly believe the President can do something about it.   Why do people hold to this belief?  Because those running for president claim that they can turn the economy around – Barack Obama said so in 2008, and Mitt Romney is making the same claim now.  Once in office, of course, no President is going to announce that he was fooling everyone, and that in fact the economy is driven by factors largely out of his control!   And so Obama is stuck facing unrealistic expectations partly fueled by his own campaign promises.

At this point, it is evident that the economy is not going to turn around quickly enough and to the degree necessary to insure Obama’s reelection.  Hence his effort to try to link Romney, by portraying him as a “vulture capitalist”, to the policies that contributed to the current economic malaise.   In truth, the President has very little choice in the matter, given the few cards he has to play.   By a margin of 49%-41%, more voters believe Romney will do a better job than Obama in handling the economy.  If he is to win reelection, Obama has to persuade enough voters that this is not true.   But he is facing an uphill climb; 64% of respondents think Obama holds “a lot” (34%) or “some” (30%) of the responsibility for the current state of the economy.  Although Obama supporters point out that those same respondents hold George W. Bush more responsible for the current economic woes, Bush isn’t on the ballot come November – Obama is.

Until then, we have almost four months of punditry to go. So, sit back and enjoy the daily food fight as the pundits debate Mitt’s tax returns and what Obama meant when he said, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that” and whatever other story dominates the latest news cycle.  Just remember – most of these debates are about peripheral issues that aren’t likely to have any lasting impact.  Distilled to its essence, November’s election will largely be a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy. That means the next big campaign event is likely to take place on July 27th, when the first estimate of the second quarter GDP will be released.  In the interim, cue the pundits!

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