Is the presidential race breaking wide open?

The last few days have seen the release of three polls showing strong national leads for President Obama.

  1. Reuters: Obama 49-Romney 42 (+7 Obama)
  2. CNN: Obama 52-Romney 45 (+7 Obama)
  3. Fox News: 49-40 (+9 Obama)

Looking below the surface of the overall numbers, independents are moving toward Obama and Romney’s image and standing have suffered.

In the poll averages, Obama’s had a lead against Romney pretty much the whole time. According to the RealClearPolitics compilation, you have to go back to October 2011 to find any lead at all for Romney, and that was quite small.  Obama has been leading in the electoral college tally.

But these three polls might give one the sense that the presidential race is breaking wide open and Obama is running away with it.

Rather than predict where this election is headed, consider why Obama has these strong leads and what might shake it up further, advantaging Romney.

What’s fueling Obama’s increasing lead?

1. Romney’s foreign trip went badly. His problems were of his own doing, as he generated criticisms overseas.  While foreign policy and national security are not the top issues, they are fundamental to a president’s role. Romney undermined his credibility as a potential foreign policy/military/national security leader.

2. Romney has not had a good answer to the attacks on his role as part of Bain Capital. Americans believe in capitalism and free enterprise, but they distinguish between business and what Gov. Rick Perry called Romney’s dealings — “vulture capitalism.”

Many Americans had sad experiences with those sorts of operations. Factories were shut down, leading their health insurance to vanish (leading people to delay treatment until they are rather sick and making them vulnerable to medical bankruptcy), as businesses like Bain walked away with workers’ pension funds and huge pay-outs.

3. Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns plays into suspicions of him as a person and is linked to dislike of his Bain activities.

According to this report on Ohio voters:

Television ads that Obama and his allies have aired on Cleveland stations for weeks have left some wondering how Romney earned up to $250 million at Bain and whether he caused the layoffs of Americans like themselves along the way.

Echoing the Obama ads, they also question why some of Romney’s personal fortune wound up in Switzerland, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

“He should just surrender his tax returns and let the people see what he’s done,” said 50-year-old Kevin Cannon, a Fairview Park grocery store cashier who voted for Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain, but might reluctantly support a second term for Obama.

This secrecy is not working for Romney. Senator Reid’s statements that Romney didn’t pay any taxes for years is keeping the issue in the news. And now the Obama campaign has an ad focused on these.

4. Bain, the tax returns issue, and the budgetary policies Romney supports have undermined Romney’s greatest strength — his claim that, as a businessman, he can better repair the American economy.

Polling data clearly bear this out. While Obama used to be behind Romney on economic leadership, now they are typically tied or very close, as sometimes Romney leads and sometimes Obama is actually ahead.

And the policies Romney espouses, with their big tax cuts for the wealthy, along with cuts in the programs Americans support, are very unpopular.

These three items — Bain, the tax returns, and policies, are all threads in a portrait of Governor Romney the Obama campaign has crafted.

5. Health care is no longer a drag on Obama, as support for the Affordable Care Act continues to rise. The opinion landscape since the Supreme Court decision has changed. And, in that new Fox News poll, Obama is viewed as better for handling health care by 49-42%.

6. The economy appears to be making progress. As the Washington Post reports:

The long-moribund housing market has bustled to life, with prices and new-home construction rising in recent weeks. Hiring, so weak earlier this year, picked up last month. And on Thursday, the government reported an acceleration of a downward trend in the number of people seeking unemployment insurance, as well as a sharp improvement in U.S. exports.

What might shake things up and help Romney?

Normally presidential candidates have some important opportunities to improve their prospects — when they choose their running mates and at their national conventions.

Romney should get a bounce from these – and perhaps create a new dynamic in the race.

McCain was behind Obama for nearly all of 2008, but he had a lead from roughly September 6 – September 17. Initially, the Palin pick helped McCain.

But Romney will need to re-establish his footing. The campaign seems to be trying out new lines of attack, moving away from his focus on the economy.

We are far from the November election and a lot can happen in-between, including developments we don’t know about yet — in the campaign and in the real world. Obviously the health of the economy is an open question. Moreover, Obama’s job approval is under 50%, danger territory for an incumbent. As political analyst Nate Silver contends, these new polls shouldn’t “panic” Romney.

Although the Obama campaign had a head start in building a grassroots operation for connecting with voters in the community, Romney is moving forward on this as well and is helped by organizing by the religious right. (Romney is also benefitted by attempts to limit voting, such as holding no early voting in Democratic-leaning Ohio counties, while allowing it in Republican-leaning ones.)

And what about the huge money to be spent on behalf of Romney? In going after a sitting president, unless there’s some sort of new information, it’s not likely to have a huge impact (although of course it’s better than being cash poor). Campaign spending matters much more when a candidate is not well-defined, and certainly could matter a lot in state races.  But that is another story, best left for another time.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.