Of all the prognostications that have surrounded the 2012 presidential election, the word “landslide” has rarely been used.
No, this one looks like it will come down to the wire, according to recent national polls, and the swing states to watch this fall have already been well established, with Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida set for a lion’s share of attention from now until Nov. 6 (and perhaps after that, if we see something similar to the broken-chad fiasco in Florida’s 2000 recount).
Given the expected tightness of the race, those practicing the predictive arts are even more attuned to the factors used to make some sense of what voters are currently thinking – and what they may do this fall.
Historically, approval ratings have been a significant metric, and understandably so. At the end of the day, if more of the voting population likes what you’re doing, your likelihood of staying in office stands to be greater.
The opposite of that idea is what Republicans are banking on in 2012. President Obama’s approval ratings, although up from 12 months ago, have been below 50% for about 18 months, and the percentage of people who disapprove of the job the president is doing is higher than those that approve, according to a RealClear Politics average.
But as election forecaster Nate Silver has pointed out, a small but persistent gap has continued to exist between Obama’s approval ratings and his head-to-head polling against Mitt Romney. In other words, less than half of prospective voters like the job he’s doing, but he continues to consistently hold an edge over Romney in national popular vote polls.
Silver says it’s perfectly reasonable that Republicans and Democrats could use this information as evidence to support the relative respective strengths and weaknesses of both Obama and Romney.
However, what is more intriguing, Silver says, is to consider Obama’s favorability ratings, which are net-positive, and have been throughout most of his presidency. In short, Americans tend to like the guy, and there’s a slice of the electorate – about 4%, according to Silver – that thinks favorably of Obama but doesn’t like the job he’s doing.
The key, of course, is what this fraction of voters will do in November. Given the closeness of the election, Silver says their behavior this fall could be decisive. And if the election is to be about Obama’s approval rating, the election could be a toss-up.
But a referendum on Obama’s likeability may have Romney as the decided underdog.