Thomas Fitzgerald: Electorate is unmoved

Mitt Romney drew some boos at the NAACP convention, which cant hurt with his base.
Mitt Romney drew some boos at the NAACP convention, which cant hurt with his base. (PAT SULLIVAN / Associated Press)

The rhetoric is heated, the issues big. But the race is little changed.

Posted: July 16, 2012

There have been tremors aplenty: Two weak monthly jobs reports; consequential Supreme Court decisions on immigration and health care; gaffes, such as President Obama's "doing fine" remark about the private sector; and an onslaught of negative ads, mostly aimed at defining Mitt Romney as a heartless plutocrat based on his past as head of the private-equity firm Bain Capital.

Yet none of these events has budged the needle in a presidential race that polls say has remained remarkably stable for months - and consistently close.

Since May, when the Republican primaries wrapped up, Obama and Romney have been essentially tied among likely voters, with the president doing a little better than that among a wider universe of registered voters.

"Not a thing has changed," said veteran pollster Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. "Not a thing."

In 10 of 13 polls of likely voters compiled by Real Clear Politics, the president's vote share has ranged between 43 and 47 percent, while Romney's is in the same range. Twenty surveys of registered voters compiled by the website give Obama between 44 and 49 percent, while Romney has between 42 and 46 percent.

Strategists on both sides, as well as independent analysts, say the race seems destined to remain close for the three months and three weeks between now and Election Day.

The backdrop of issues underlying the contest also seems stable: Supermajorities of voters are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, and Obama's job-approval rating has remained below 50 percent in most polls for months; he's also in negative territory when it comes to voters' views of his handling of the economy, the number-one issue.

And the lack of movement in the race shows a polarized electorate, with relatively few undecided voters.

In a Washington Post/ABC News poll last week, for instance, about nine in 10 Republicans back Romney; roughly the same proportion of Democrats support Obama. In several polls, few of the voters who have decided on a candidate say anything could change their minds before Nov. 6.

So far, both campaigns are pitching mostly to their bases.

Obama is pushing "fairness" to the middle class (or class warfare, pending on your political persuasion). He wants to extend the Bush-era tax cuts only for those making less than $250,000 a year, and the president is blanketing the airwaves in swing states with (largely unanswered) ads painting Romney as a soulless corporate raider who threw people out of work and shipped jobs overseas in pursuit of higher profits for himself and his partners.

Yet those gut-punch spots have not really moved the poll numbers either.

"Elections are usually referenda on the incumbent, and only secondarily about the challenger," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

Obama has his low job-approval marks and negative perceptions of the economy to overcome.

Romney, for his part, portrays Obama as hostile to "job creators" and free enterprise, a leader whose reckless spending and record deficits will cripple the nation economically for a long time. Obama's health-care program and penchant for environmental regulation harm job creation, the Romney argument goes.

When he went to the NAACP convention last week, Romney drew nationally televised boos for saying unfettered free enterprise was the best way to lift up people of all races, and for attacking Obama's health-care program and advocating cuts in federal social programs. That was a good day for Romney, his rough reception stoking the base - preaching to the choir in another church, as it were.

Yet Romney is not pulling away in the polls, either - perhaps, some analysts suggest, because though the economy is not great, it is not as bad as it was in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was dumped, or four years ago, when Obama defeated John McCain.

Sean Trende, senior election analyst for Real Clear Politics, noted that the economic numbers are not that different from 2004, when the incumbent party kept the White House, or 1992, when President George H.W. Bush was turned out of office. The upshot: The race will likely stay close and could go either way.

"We're stuck with a series of arguments and there's no reward for deviating from it," pollster Madonna said. "The paradigm is set and it's not likely to change."

Bitterly partisan, incessantly negative, all about "class war" and other crass appeals to the base - it might not add up to the kind of lofty campaign some Americans say they want.

But it's what they got.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718, tfitzgerald@phillynews.com or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/bigtent.

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