Every once in a blue moon, a pollster asks exactly the right questions and brings some clarity to a number of important "big picture" issues in an election. Such is the case with the latest Pew poll. In particular, this survey helps us answer:
-- Is this election a choice or a referendum?
-- Why aren’t the bad economy and Mitt Romney’s attacks on the president moving the polls more in his favor?
Here are the key findings:
First, by a 90 percent to 8 percent margin, registered voters say that they already pretty much know what they need to know about President Obama.
Second, by a 69 percent to 28 percent margin, these voters say that they already pretty much know what they need to know about Romney. In other words, three times as many voters are still evaluating the presumptive GOP nominee as are evaluating the president.
Third, among independents -- who are almost certainly the lion’s share of those who have not yet formed a strong opinion of Romney -- 42 percent say they want to know more about his record as governor, 37 percent want to know more about his record as CEO of Bain Capital, and 35 percent want to know more about his tax returns. Just 21 percent of independents want to know more about his wealth, 19 percent want to know more about his family and upbringing, and 16 percent want to know more about his religious beliefs.
These findings go a long way toward explaining the 2012 contest. In the referendum model of the election, voters ask themselves two questions: First, do I want the president to be re-elected? Second, is the challenger so unacceptable that I simply can’t bring myself to vote for him?
The Pew poll suggests that the vast majority of voters are not carefully weighing the two choices, as the “choice” model would suggest. Instead, they have already made up their mind about the president. Given Obama’s persistent polling below 50 percent, especially among independents, we might surmise that it is a net negative verdict.
This is all consistent with his re-elect score in polls. It is also consistent with Rasmussen Reports’ polling -- backed up earlier in the year by Public Policy Polling (a Democratic firm that has been quite accurate the past two cycles) -- suggesting that the president’s approval rating among undecided voters is languishing in the 20s.
This all helps to explain why Romney hasn’t been able to move the polls. Obama has been president for almost four years now, and has kept a consistently high profile during that time. Unlike 2004, where the economy hit an upward inflection point shortly before the general election got under way, while the Iraq War hit a downward inflection point at roughly the same time, nothing has really changed in the past few years. The economy remains sluggish, the health care bill remains controversial, and the president remains a charismatic figure capable of delivering a heckuva speech. In this situation, what can Romney’s advertisements tell people that they haven’t already figured out for themselves?
Complicating matters for the Republican’s campaign, the president is at 46 percent in head-to-heads in the RCP average. In the past six presidential elections, this has represented the floor for the parties (in terms of two-party vote share). In other words, the low-to-medium hanging fruit for Republicans are already either voting for Romney or are undecided. Absent a major economic collapse, Obama’s poll numbers simply aren’t likely to drop any lower.
So voters are at Step 2 of the referendum model. They are evaluating Romney. In this situation, the Republicans are doing the exact wrong thing by making 90 percent of their ads attacks on Obama. Although voters always say this but rarely mean it, they really do want Romney to go positive. They are interested in learning about his accomplishments (or lack thereof), especially during his term as governor.
While the Obama camp has been trying to give voters what they want, albeit from a negative perspective (and perhaps part of why Obama hasn’t moved the polls with his blitz is that those voters who are interested in Bain and Romney’s taxes are waiting to hear Romney’s side of the story), the Romney camp and his super PAC supporters have been banging their collective heads against a wall essentially trying to re-convince voters that the president is not doing a good job. Simply put, this won’t do it.
It is a real question whether the Romney campaign gets this. Throughout the primary process, it focused relentlessly on tearing down its opponents. Thus far, it has done the same in the general election. Maybe Romney doesn’t have that much of a record of accomplishment as governor, outside of the radioactive health care law. Or maybe the campaign simply isn’t capable of telling a compelling, positive story about the nominee.
Regardless, these are parts of his biography that simply must be filled in if Romney wants to win, along with his activities turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics. (Does anyone outside of the political world even know about that?) If Romney can do this, he’ll have an excellent shot at winning this race. It might not even be close. But if he can’t, he will probably become the first presidential challenger in modern history to pass Step 1 of the referendum model, but fail Step 2.