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The big picture at the start of summer

By on May 29, 2012

Checking in on the state of the presidential campaign as the summer begins:

It’s still very early to put any serious weight on the head-to-head horse-race polls. For what it’s worth, President Obama is leading by a tick or two (just under a single percentage point in Pollster’s trend lines, a bit more than one point in the Real Clear Politics poll-of-polls average), but I wouldn’t pay much attention to that. Remember that horse-race polls can take a while to catch up to the underlying fundamentals of the race, and also that they can be distorted by short-term bumps.

I’d pay more attention to Obama’s approval ratings, although as it turns out they basically tell the same story: It looks right now as if it’s going to be a close race. The most recent Gallup reading is a 48 percent/45 percent approval/disapproval spread, which continues to track almost exactly with where President George W. Bush was in May 2004, when his most recent approval number was 47%.

As has been the case for a while now, Obama is doing worse than Nixon (62 percent approval in his most recent poll in 1972), Reagan (54 percent), and Clinton (55 percent) at the equivalent points in their terms, but he’s also doing solidly better than Carter (38 percent) and George H.W. Bush (41 percent and headed down).

The best news for Obama, I’d say, is that economic confidence continues to be moving in the right direction, with both the traditional Michigan index and Gallup’s confidence index reaching or matching post-recession highs. The worst news is easy: Europe.

In other words — and you’ve heard this before but it’s still true — it’s still very possible that the economy will rally enough to give the president a fairly easy reelection, and it’s still very possible that Europe will become bad enough fast enough that its economic woes will infect the U.S. economy and with it Obama’s chances. However, if things stay more or less as they are now, it’s looking more and more as if we can expect a close presidential election, with Obama perhaps a very slight favorite but with a close enough race that campaign tactics and performance will really make a difference.

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