It’s all but official: Survey after survey indicates that President Obama’s reelection prospects have brightened considerably in the past three months. Pundits and campaign professionals have tried to explain this development by focusing on factors such as the White House’s new post-debt ceiling message and the damage the Republican primary process seems to have inflicted on Mitt Romney. But the real causes of this shift are much more fundamental—namely, that Americans now believe their country’s economic health is improving. Obama’s re-election will depend on whether they continue believing so in the nine months until election day.
Despite the recent flurries over social issues, the condition of the economy continues to drive the 2012 election more than in any contest since 1992. As the most recent CBS/NYT survey shows, the public’s assessment of the president’s overall economic management has become much more positive since last fall. As recently as December, it stood at 33 percent approval, 60 percent disapproval. In January, it improved to 40/54, and in February to 44/50. Public assessment of the president as job creator has shifted in the same direction—35/58 in December, 41/52 by February. And so has the evaluation of economic trends. As recently as last month, only 25 percent of the public believed that the economy was getting better, versus 29 percent who thought it was getting worse. By February, the mood had improved considerably: 34 percent now think the economy is getting better, versus only 22 percent who still think it’s deteriorating.
It turns out that the American public is an exquisitely sensitive barometer of real economic developments. Between January and September of 2011, job creation ranged from anemic to imperceptible, the number of unemployed Americans didn’t budge, and neither did the unemployment rate. Since then, the number of employed Americans has risen by 1.5 million, the number of unemployed has declined by more than 1.2 million, and the unemployment rate has declined from 9.0 to 8.3 percent. If these trends continue at this pace for the next nine months, Obama will be sworn in for a second term. (For a roundup of the forecasters who think they won’t, see my column from last week).
Still, as so often happens, the consensus has shifted too abruptly, moving from “Obama’s toast” to “none of these bums can beat him.” Obama’s chances may have improved, but 2012 is still a close race and will remain so unless the economy outperforms most expectations. For a snapshot of where things stand in the general election, one can hardly do better than the most recent Quinnipiac survey of Ohio, the closest thing we have to a microcosm of the country and the most reliably pivotal of all the states. As of now, Obama leads Santorum by 47 to 41 percent. But he leads Romney by only 46 to 44 percent, compared to a 45 to 41 percent edge last October. Last fall, 36 percent of Ohio’s registered voters had a favorable view of Romney, versus 31 percent unfavorable. Today, the favorable assessment is essentially the same—37 percent—while his unfavorable rating has risen to 40 percent—bad but not catastrophic. During this same period, Obama’s personal approval rating remained almost stable—47/46 in November, 49/46 now, and his job approval rose modestly, from 44/50 to 47/48. (It’s also important to keep in mind that this polling comes at a point in the election campaign when primary candidates typically are at their nadir.)
The bottom line: Romney is bloodied but not mortally wounded, while the president is doing better but is not yet out of danger. And despite Santorum’s rapid rise, which could lead to his nomination if he prevails in Michigan, the evidence currently available does not sustain what is becoming the core argument of his primary campaign—that in the industrial Midwest, his alleged blue-collar appeal would make him a stronger general election candidate than Romney against Obama. Romney and Obama as favorites, Santorum as a long-shot: The overall political situation has changed since last fall, but not as much as many people think. In the minds of swing voters, the economy will still be the deciding factor.
William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor at The New Republic.