Why Mitt Romney had a good month

The month of May was good to Mitt Romney. He clinched the GOP nomination. Voters are viewing him more favorably, especially Republican women. And a droopy economy is of no help to Obama.

Beck Diefenbach/Reuters
Republican US presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney boards a media bus headed for the former Solyndra headquarters and factory in Fremont, California, on May 31.

Mitt Romney has had a good month, numbers-wise. That does not mean he’s suddenly become the favorite for November – the 2012 presidential horse race is fairly stable and remains essentially tied. Nor does it indicate that Friday’s stinker of a jobs report by itself makes a Romney victory more probable. Many other important economic indicators will be released in the months to come.

What it means is that Mr. Romney has improved on the margins in some important underlying indicators and thus may be less vulnerable than Democrats believe to some of the Obama camp’s favorite attacks.

(Yes, that’s a mouthful. We’re trying to keep pesky political scientists from blogging that we’ve gone wild and crazy and overinterpreted a few poll results.)

For the presumptive GOP nominee, the most important trend of May might be that voters are judging him a bit more positively. In the latest Gallup results, from earlier this month, his favorable rating hit a new high of 50 percent. His unfavorable rating is 41, meaning he’s at a plus-8 in this overall measurement.

As recently as February, Romney’s Gallup favorable was only 39 percent. What’s changed is that Republicans’ views of him have gotten much more positive, rising by 22 percentage points in the past three months. He’s doing better among independents, too, with a corresponding 11-point increase.

What’s fueling this? Perhaps it’s the simple fact that he beat all his GOP rivals. Winners look better just for having won.

“Presidential candidates typically get a spike in their favorable ratings in the wake of winning the nomination,” writes Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones.

Other polls show this same movement, though not all have Romney’s personal popularity at more than 50 percent. For instance, a new Washington Post-ABC survey has Romney with a 41 percent approval rating, up from 35 percent a month ago. President Obama still leads Romney in this measure – 52 percent of Americans view the incumbent positively, according to Post/ABC numbers. But the gap is narrowing. In April Mr. Obama led in approval by 21 points. Now it’s 11, according to this survey.

And this surge happened at a time when the Obama campaign was increasingly turning its attention to an attempt to define Romney in a negative manner. Remember all that stuff about Romney’s record at Bain Capital?

Plus, Romney has not exactly had easy treatment from the press. There was the Washington Post report about the teen Romney leading a hair-cutting bully attack, plus all the will-Mitt-repudiate-Donald-Trump stories. It’s possible all that will show up in a future survey or be taken into account in some longer-term manner. But at the moment it doesn’t appear to be driving Romney down in the polls.

While expected, “the recuperation in Mr. Romney’s favorability numbers ... reduces the risk that his personal qualities might cause him to lose an election that he otherwise would have won,” wrote New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver on his FiveThirtyEight blog recently.

The other number that’s looking a bit better for Romney is his rating with Republican women. In the Post/ABC poll, his approval rating among GOP-leaning women has jumped to 80 percent, up from 59 percent the month before.

Romney still rates poorly among Democratic women. That pushes his overall favorable rating among women down to 40 percent. But the gains among women in his own party have virtually closed his gender gap, at least in this latest survey. Women and men view him in about the same light.

Overall, the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls has Obama maintaining a slight edge over Romney of 2.5 percentage points.

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