Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is the 2012 Race a Stalemate?

Several days ago, Barack Obama took the lead in the polls. The trend was in Obama's favor, but after a brief time, the national general election polls swung back in Mitt Romney's favor. The two candidates are virtually tied; even when the numbers were at their best for either Romney or Obama, the polls showed a dead heat.

Both candidates can promote spin about how the closeness of the race suggests weakness on the part of the other candidate. Considering how poor the state of the economy is, and considering how unpopular Obama's legislation has been (e.g. Obamacare), one might say the closeness of the race proves Romney is weak. After all, when voters disapprove of the economy, it should make things easy for the challenger.

On the other hand, Obama is an incumbent. His challenger went through a bruising primary campaign in which the Republican Party eagerly sought an "Anti-Romney" wherever they could find one. Romney lacks charisma, his own party doesn't like him much, he hasn't chosen a vice presidential nominee yet, and he has been subject to attacks by the media and his opponents in both parties. By that measure, the closeness of the polls suggests weakness on Obama's part.

As is usually the case, the spin on both sides contains elements of truth: The economy is weak and voters are ambivalent at best about Obama; Romney is a weak challenger and has so far been unable to unite or excite his party. Perhaps the reason why the polls continue to gravitate toward a tie is that the two candidates' weaknesses cancel each other out.

But is the race destined to be a stalemate? Not necessarily. As we wrote earlier, the general election won't really begin for awhile. Voters will begin to pay some attention when Romney selects his VP, and they'll tune in once the parties' conventions take place beginning August 27th. Until then, the race won't fully take shape. Voters' attitudes toward Romney will be particularly difficult to register, since they won't see him in action or even know much about him before the Republican convention.

After both conventions finish in early September, polling data will become more useful. The race may still be deadlocked, but it may not. If voters continue to be unhappy with Obama, and if they are convinced that Romney is a decent alternative, the polls could swing in Romney's favor. Even after the race takes shape in early September, the October debates between the candidates will have the potential to swing the race in either direction; we have seen that historically, the debates matter. Even so, the "starting point" also matters. Each candidate's starting point won't become clear until the conventions.