Can an incumbent win a second term as President if the majority think their lives haven’t improved in his first term? Barack Obama is about to find out the answer to that question. While the race remains a virtual dead heat in swing states polled by USA Today and Gallup, the verdict on his first term looks pretty solid — a good, solid D-minus at best:
Barack Obama, who made history when he was elected president four years ago, would make a different kind of history if he wins re-election in November: The first incumbent in at least a generation to claim a second term when most Americans say they aren’t better off than they were when he moved into the Oval Office.
In USA TODAY/Gallup survey nationwide and in the 12 top battleground states, most voters say the situation for them and their families hasn’t improved over the past four years, the first time that has happened since Ronald Reagan famously posed the question in his debate with President Carter in 1980 — a contest Carter lost.
Even so, President Obama, who in 2008 became the first African-American elected president, maintains a lead over challenger Mitt Romney in the battleground states likely to decide the election, 47%-44%. That’s better than his standing in the non-battleground states, where Romney leads 47%-45%.
Despite airing millions of dollars in TV ads and taking a high-profile trip abroad, Romney has failed to budge in the swing states, stuck at 44% or 45% since April. In that time, Obama has maintained a steady 47% despite a string of disappointing monthly jobs reports and an 8.3% unemployment rate.
That’s certainly one way to look at it. The other way: Despite having a 3-1 spending advantage in swing states and the power of the incumbency, Barack Obama has been unable to break out of a margin-of-error tie with Romney for three months. The incumbent also can’t get above 47%, which is well below the re-elect number an incumbent needs, especially this far out from the election.
Gallup has its own analysis of swing-state sentiment on the results of Obama’s three-plus years in office:
A majority of voters in key 2012 election swing states say they are not better off than they were four years ago; 40% say they are better off. Swing-state voters’ assessments of their situation compared with 2008 have varied little since last fall. …
The fact that the majority of voters in the crucial states that will decide the election believe they are not better off is a challenge for the Obama campaign. That includes 50% of independent voters in the swing states, in addition to 36% of Democrats and 84% of Republicans saying they are not better off.
The only saving grace is that most voters don’t blame Obama, Gallup says. But that’s not much comfort once one looks at the breakdown:
One key in determining how big a threat the lack of improvement in voters’ lives is to Obama’s re-election chances is whether they blame him for their situation. The poll finds that voters do not widely blame Obama for their circumstances. Twenty percent of swing-state voters say they are not better off and blame Obama alone. Another 15% are not better off and blame Obama but also blame George W. Bush. And 21% do not blame Obama, including 7% who believe Bush alone is responsible.
Nearly three times as many voters blame Obama alone as Bush alone (20/7), and another 15% blame both of them together. That’s 35% of all voters (not 35% of the 56%) who blame Obama in whole or in part for their lack of progress, as opposed to 14% who don’t blame anyone for it. More than one-third of the electorate lays this in whole or in part at Obama’s feet. That’s not exactly good news, although the question would then become how many of those voters are already voting for Romney, and how many still have to make up their minds.
In another data point that makes the above perhaps even worse, 52% of the respondents think that Obama has not done as well as could be expected — and 28% of those think they’re better off than they were four years ago. That suggests that even the 40% number might be soft support for Obama, and that these figures may be even worse news than they look on their face.
Overall, though, these polls show that Obama has stalled out despite outspending his rival, even in the swing states. In two weeks, Romney gets to put his money advantage to work in these same states, and this shows that a majority of voters are willing to look at a Plan B.