By the count of one Democratic pollster, roughly 40 presidential election polls have been released in the past seven weeks — about one a day, with a day off every week. What do they tell us about November?
The most obvious is that the contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney is likely to be close and competitive from now until Election Day. Obama leads in most, but not all, of the polls released since Romney effectively won the Republican nomination a few weeks ago, but his position is anything but solid.
In some polls, Obama’s lead is outside the margin of error, while in others it is not. In only a few is the president above 50 percent when pitted against Romney. The same holds for his overall approval rating: not consistently above 50 percent. Despite the water Romney took on during the primaries, he appears quite capable of making a real race of the general election. That is because economic issues continue to dominate the concerns of most voters.
To the extent that Obama has an advantage at this point when voters are asked to judge the two candidates, it is based largely on assessments of personal qualities. Both the Washington Post-ABC News poll of two weeks ago and the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released late last week underscore the degree to which majorities of Americans see Obama as more likable, more in touch with average people and more focused on the needs of middle-class voters.
Romney is competitive on the core issues, though where he is judged superior to the president, his lead is smaller than Obama’s is on personal qualities. Both polls found that a plurality of Americans believe Romney has better ideas for fixing the economy. The Post-ABC survey showed that Obama is judged to be slightly better than Romney on creating jobs and Romney is seen as better on the deficit. Consider it a jump ball as the debate begins.
The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found, by a small margin, that Americans say Romney is more likely than Obama to change business as usual in Washington. That reflects the toll that more than three years in the capital’s polarized environment has taken on the image of a president whose first campaign was built on a message that he would change the tone and culture of Washington. It underscores how differently the country sees the president and why 2012 is not in any way a rerun of 2008.
This is not a “yes, we can” country or election. Pessimism abounds — about the economy, about the direction of the country, about the ability of government to function. Voters resist offering optimistic assessments of the economic recovery. The polls are inadequate measures of Americans’ conflicting emotions and opinions about the state of the country and its political leaders.
Neither candidate inspires great confidence. Half the voters say Obama’s reelection would make them feel pessimistic or uncertain; an almost identical share say they would feel optimistic or hopeful. A majority say Romney’s election would make them pessimistic or uncertain.