If electability trumps ideology in the Republican nominating contest – and in the end it almost always does (Barry Goldwater in 1964 was an exception) – then the 2012 presidential race inevitably will boil down to Romney vs. Obama.
That’s the main message in a series of recent polls. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney consistently comes close to beating Obama, running neck-and-neck with the President – way better than most of the other GOP candidates, although Ron Paul comes close in some national surveys as well.
A CNN/ORC International Poll released Monday has Romney a whisker ahead of Obama (48-47 percent), well within the survey’s margin of error.
Another aspect of this poll shows a tightening of the race as measured by voter “enthusiasm.”
Enthusiasm about voting now stands at 54 percent among registered Republicans, CNN reports, down ten points from last October. Meanwhile, enthusiasm among registered Democrats has risen six points, and now stands at 49 percent.
"In a race that tight, turnout is likely to determine the outcome, and the Democrats have begun to close the 'enthusiasm gap' that damaged their prospects so badly in the 2010 midterms," writes CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
Each candidate has distinctive strengths, says Holland:
"On the economy – issue number one to most Americans – Romney has a clear advantage. Fifty-three percent say the former Massachusetts governor can get the economy moving; only 40 percent say that about President Barack Obama. But the numbers are reversed when voters are asked whether the candidates are in touch with ordinary Americans. Fifty-three percent say that Obama is in touch; only four in ten feel that way about Romney."
In another poll out Monday – this one by Fox News – Obama is ahead of Romney by a single percentage point (46-45), another statistical tie.
“Behind those numbers is a striking contrast,” writes Dana Blanton at foxnews.com. “Seventy-four percent of Obama backers say they are voting ‘for’ him rather than ‘against Romney’ (21 percent). Yet for Romney, his support is mainly anti-Obama. Fifty-eight percent of Romney voters say they would be voting ‘against Obama’ rather than ‘for Romney’ (33 percent).”
But there’s a warning for the Obama campaign as well. Independents favor Romney 43-38 percent.
“The poll brings more mixed news for Obama,” reports Blanton. “On the positive side, 34 percent of voters are satisfied with the way things are going in the country today. That’s up from 24 percent in October and 30 percent in April 2011. And more voters today think the economy has started to turn the corner than thought so two months ago. Forty percent now think the worst is over, up from 29 percent in mid-November. Less encouraging for the president is that a 56-percent majority is pessimistic on the economy, and 53 percent think life for the next generation of Americans will be worse than life today. Thirty-four percent think it will be better.”
Among the remaining five Republican candidates (Jon Huntsman dropped out Monday), only Romney is very close to Obama as measured by the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls – just 0.8 percent behind the incumbent in a theoretical match-up.
Volatility and the possibility of unknown factors are basic to presidential campaigns this early in a race that still has months to go – perhaps more so than usual at a time when the incumbent (the first African American president who could be running against the first Mormon to head a national ticket) is disengaging from two wars and trying to pull the national economy back from recession.
“Americans' current evaluation of the president's job performance, their satisfaction with the direction of the country, and their ratings of the economy are all on the lower end of what Gallup has found at or near the start of previous years when an incumbent president sought re-election,” Gallup’s Lydia Saad writes in an analysis posted Monday. “While these comparisons are not auspicious for Obama's re-election, a broader view of how these ratings have changed over the course of previous presidential election years suggests it is not too late for the numbers to shift in Obama's favor.”