With Rick Santorum suspending his campaign for president last week in Gettysburg, PA the general election can now officially begin. Both Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul remain in the GOP race but Mitt Romney, who has a commanding lead in the delegate count, popular vote, money and infrastructure race is now assured the nomination.
Waiting for Romney is the Obama machine that since 2010 has been honing its message, hiring hundreds of staffers in dozens of states and burning through cash on voter targeting faster than any modern presidential campaign. So how do the two stack up against each other today?
There is no doubt that Romney comes out of his brutal primary wounded and hobbled. Santorum, Gingrich and to a lesser extent other candidates laid a series of successive blows on the former Governor. And in response Romney fought back with a largely negative message on his opponents, never fully laying out for even GOP voters what his vision of the country entails. In recent days Romney has begun to do that, laying out an economic vision that is not just fiscal but also moral.
As all incumbent presidents who do not face a primary have been able to do Obama has been able to stay above the fray. His campaign thus has been able to feed several narratives Romney’s GOP primary opponents fed about him, “He is not conservative, he does not sympathize with people, he does not understand woman,” etc. But the two biggest the Obama campaign is battering Romney with are in regards to his wealth and his background and how it relates to him being out of touch “With the concerns of average Americans.”
On the issues Obama and Romney stand pretty much in lock-step with the national platforms of their parties. Obama wants higher taxes on the wealthy and Romney does not want. Obama does not want to privatize Medicare and Romney has come out in support of the Ryan budget. Both Romney and Obama give deference to the idea of deficit reduction but differ on how to get there. One of the biggest glaring differences between the two, and perhaps one that could most shape the election, is their views on women issues.
Romney has made clear he wants to stay above the fray on contraception but the Obama campaign has made sure he cannot. The Obama campaign has assured Romney has been dragged into the debate merely due to his affiliation as a Republican. Democrats labelling of the GOP and by extension Romney are “Waging a war on women” has for now moved women firmly into Obama’ camp. In response the GOP and especially Romney’s campaign have fought back by arguing the president has failed women and is “Waging a war on women” through his failed economic policies. In the last few national surveys Obama has had commanding 15-20 point leads among women but demographically this is unlikely to hold up. White women currently back Obama in most surveys but a majority has never voted for a Democratic president since 1964. In this economy that is unlikely to change.
And this brings us to what surveys tell us about the match-up between Obama and Romney. Numerous surveys show Romney has a lower favorability image than Obama. In these surveys however Obama is barely hitting 50% approval, if he hits that number at all. A bright spot for Romney is he has room to improve among independents and more importantly Republican voters support. On the specific issues of handling the economy the president remains deeply underwater in approval and even as Romney currently loses in national surveys voters trust him more on this issue. Contradictory findings in polls is nothing new but it may also be the message that is leading this small but largely ignored trend.
A survey by the left leaning group Third Way that found among the 10-15% of voters who identify as pure independents in swing states Romney and Obama are tied. Moreover they like Romney’s message and trust him more on the economy. Yet they like Obama more personally.
So by the numbers Obama has an early advantage on the general election ballot, especially among women. Yet his economic approval numbers and the fact voters trust Romney more than him on the economy show that if this campaign turns into largely a campaign on jobs and the economy the president loses. This explains why in recent weeks the president and Democrats have pushed issues such as fairness with the “Buffet Rule” and the belief the GOP is waging a “War on women.”
One thing is for sure however. With the partisan polarization of America cemented for at least the next decade this election will be close. And in the end it will come down to partisan turnout and where the all important independent vote goes.