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Who's Keeping the Race Close? Obama or Romney?

After a supposedly disastrous month of anemic jobs growth and unforced errors, Obama appears to maintain his slight advantage over Romney in national polls. The stability of the race has surprised many, particularly those invested in the daily beat of the news cycle. TNR’s own Alec MacGillis thinks that “a huge part of it must have to do with [Obama’s] lackluster opposition.” I'm not sure the numbers bear that out.

Romney is not exactly a compelling opponent, but Obama's approval rating has been impervious to May and June's supposed volatility, suggesting that Obama's resilience is primarily a function of entrenched views of the President, not the limits of Romney's appeal. Despite the supposed game changers punctuating the campaign, Obama’s approval rating has been confined between 46.9 and 46.8 percent since February, according to The RealClearPolitics average is marginally more volatile, with Obama bouncing between 47 and 49 percent approval.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Obama’s approval rating has hewed a few points on either side of 47 percent with just three exceptions over the last two years: the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, and the debt ceiling debacle. While May and June weren’t kind to Obama, last month's job report and his "private sector is fine" flub are on a different tier than the events that have previously nudged Obama's ratings. Is Obama's 47-48 percent approval rating better than the economic indicators would predict? Even if it was, the longevity of Obama's current standing makes it tough to argue that Romney is the cause.

Republicans could have fielded a tougher candidate, but most polls show Obama’s standing in the horse-race near his own approval rating, suggesting that Obama is not picking up many voters with reservations about his own performance on account of Romney’s flaws. While Romney has not yet consolidated voters who do not approve of Obama’s performance, his failure to do so at this early stage is unsurprising. Even Obama, a popular candidate running in an exceptionally conducive political environment, did not reach 50 percent of the vote until October, and instead spent most of the summer mired in the mid-40s. With Obama's approval rating just short of 50 percent, and a decent number of voters sure to remain undecided in June, there is not very much room for a better GOP candidate to improve on Romney's current standing.