Today’s Washington Post-ABC News Poll is being touted by Democrats as a key moment in the 2012 election because for the first time, President Obama is shown as getting over the 50 percent mark in terms of job approval and in a head-to-head matchup with Mitt Romney. These are encouraging numbers for the president, but Democrats shouldn’t start mailing out inaugural ball tickets just yet. A close reading of the poll as well as the political context in which it was taken shows that the president is still highly vulnerable on a number of issues, leaving likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney still in position to make a strong challenge this fall.
First, it should be noted that the poll is only of adults, not registered voters, let alone likely voters, so its results should be taken with a shovelful of salt. The poll sample is also skewed to the left as the respondents’ party affiliation showed 34 percent Democrats to only 23 percent Republicans, figures that do not reflect most national samples of party loyalties. Just as important, the poll shows widespread dissatisfaction with the president’s handling of the economy, no confidence that a recovery from the last recession has occurred as well as a belief that the country is on the wrong track. There is no question that Obama’s position is far stronger than it seemed a few months ago. But given that the full impact of rising gas prices has not yet been felt in the country and that Romney is only now just emerging as the GOP standard-bearer after almost a year of non-stop bashing from his party opponents, these results ought not cause Democrats to celebrate too much or cause too much despair among Republicans.
The president has been the beneficiary of a long period of internecine warfare among his opponents with many Republicans concentrating their efforts on disparaging Romney. The cumulative impact of these attacks, which may well continue for a few more weeks if, as expected, Rick Santorum continues his kamikaze primary run, has definitely hurt Romney, especially as Obama has been able to conserve his resources and his apparent immunity from attacks from his side of the aisle.
The advantages of incumbency are most readily seen in the poll’s reading of the likeability of the two likely opponents in November. While Obama had a small advantage when it comes to strength of leadership and vision, he wins by a landslide when it comes to likeability with a 64-26 percent edge over Romney. He can thank the fawning coverage he and his family have received from the national media for these numbers. While the press has assailed Romney for his wealth and probed his religion and every other aspect of his life in a manner that they did not dare to push Obama four years ago, the president and his wife and children continue to receive the Camelot treatment from the media. Not since the Kennedy administration has any presidential family been treated with kid gloves the way Obama’s has and that gives him a clear edge, especially because the only thing most Americans know about Romney’s personal life is that he once traveled with a dog on the roof of his car.
Yet despite this factor as well as the recent perception of a stronger recovery, Romney need not despair. Even a majority of this poll’s skewed sample trust Romney to do a better job than the president on handling the economy, which is still the major issue that will decide the election. And given the fact that gas prices are likely to go a lot higher this summer, dissatisfaction with the administration’s energy policy (another Obama weak point in the poll) is bound to influence more voters against the incumbent.
So while Obama has good reason to be happy about his 51-43 lead over Romney in this poll, he’s far from out of the woods. The likelihood is that his advantage among likely voters in a sample that isn’t stacked with Democrats would largely evaporate. Though the president continues to enjoy the tremendous advantages that go with incumbency, Romney is still on his heels and will have every opportunity to mount a strong challenge this fall.