Obama’s Battleground-State Blues

Obama’s Battleground-State Blues
The president’s national poll numbers aren’t good, but they’re worse in battleground states.

Updated: July 27, 2011 | 11:29 a.m.
July 26, 2011 | 9:30 p.m.
Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

Obama: Numbers are bleak.
President Obama’s job approval rating in the latest national polls has been in the danger zone, ranging from 42 percent (Gallup) to 47 percent (ABC News/Washington Post), with every survey showing him with higher unfavorables than favorables. Needless to say, it’s not a good place for a president to be, especially since his numbers have worsened over the past two months.

The race for president isn’t a national contest. It’s a state-by-state battle to cobble an electoral vote majority. So while the national polls are useful in gauging the president’s popularity, the more instructive numbers are those from the battlegrounds.

Those polls are even more ominous for the president: In every reputable battleground state poll conducted over the past month, Obama’s support is weak. In most of them, he trails Republican front-runner Mitt Romney. For all the talk of a closely fought 2012 election, if Obama can’t turn around his fortunes in states such as Michigan and New Hampshire, next year’s presidential election could end up being a GOP landslide.

Take Ohio, a perennial battleground in which Obama has campaigned more than in any other state (outside of the D.C. metropolitan region). Fifty percent of Ohio voters now disapprove of his job performance, compared with 46 percent who approve, according to a Quinnipiac poll conducted from July 12-18.

Among Buckeye State independents, only 40 percent believe that Obama should be reelected, and 42 percent approve of his job performance. Against Romney, Obama leads 45 percent to 41 percent—well below the 50 percent comfort zone for an incumbent.

In Michigan, a reliably Democratic state that Obama carried with 57 percent of the vote, an EPIC-MRA poll conducted July 9-11 finds him trailing Romney, 46 percent to 42 percent. Only 39 percent of respondents grade his job performance as “excellent” or good,” with 60 percent saying it is “fair” or “poor.” The state has an unemployment rate well above the national average, and the president’s approval has suffered as a result.

In Iowa, where Republican presidential contenders are getting in their early licks against the president, his approval has taken a hit. In a Mason-Dixon poll conducted for a liberal-leaning group, Romney held a lead of 42 percent to 39 percent over the president, with 19 percent undecided. Even hyper-conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann ran competitively against Obama in the Hawkeye State, trailing 47 percent to 42 percent.

The July Granite State Poll pegs the president’s approval at 46 percent among New Hampshire voters, with 49 percent disapproving. A separate robo-poll conducted this month by Democratic-aligned Public Policy Polling shows him trailing Romney in the state, 46 percent to 44 percent.

Polls are just a snapshot, and these illustrate that the sour economy has been taking its toll on the president’s popularity. There’s plenty of time left before November 2012, but the fundamentals—projections of long-term slow economic growth, a White House struggling to tailor a message on job creation, and an energized Republican base—don’t bode well. The president’s best hope is for a deeply polarizing Republican nominee, such as Bachmann, to emerge.

Obama’s performance so far on the debt-ceiling debate hasn’t improved his standing, either. Pundits may have graded the president a winner in the battle, but it wasn’t long ago that the White House was demanding a clean debt-ceiling increase from congressional Republicans. Now, it appears that whatever deal ends up being struck will be much closer to the GOP’s terms, with the president looking less consequential in the whole process.

Obama let his frustration show at last Friday’s press conference, looking helpless while talking down the prospects of economic growth without a long-term deal. He may end up being forced to either accept a debt-ceiling package crafted by House Republicans or threaten a veto that could send markets reeling. And somehow, he manages to become more popular after all is said and done?

At this point, even a last-minute agreement that runs until after the presidential election benefits no one politically. It only underscores how broken Washington is, and that’s not good news for any incumbent, including the president.

For some time, the conventional wisdom has been that 2012 will be a close presidential contest, with a best-case scenario for Republicans of winning the race with a map similar to George W. Bush’s 2004 victory over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

But if the president can’t turn things around, that logic could prove badly outdated. If Obama is struggling in the Democratic-friendly confines of Michigan and Pennsylvania (as recent polls have indicated), it’s hard to see him over-performing again in more-traditional battlegrounds such as Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia.

Unless the environment changes significantly, all the money in the president’s reelection coffers won’t be able to expand the map; it can only defend territory that’s being lost. And just as House Democrats played defense to protect the growing number of vulnerable members in last year’s midterms, Obama is looking like he’ll be scrambling to hold onto a lot of the states that he thought would be part of an emerging Democratic majority.

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This article appeared in the Wednesday, July 27, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily.

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