Obama's elusive lead

Voters overwhelmingly agree Romney favors the rich and big banks. So why hasn't the president opened up a lead?

Published May 25, 2012 12:47PM (EDT)

One of the goals of Barack Obama’s campaign is for voters to see Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy who’s far more attuned to the concerns of corporate executives, bankers and the affluent than middle- and working-class Americans.

The good news for the Obama team is that they’re well on their way to achieving this goal. Further data from an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this morning finds that voters by a 65 to 24 percent margin believe Romney would do more to advance the interests of wealthy Americans. Romney also wins by a big spread on the question of who would do more for financial institutions, 56 to 32 percent. At the same time, Obama enjoys a healthy 9-point advantage, 51 to 42 percent, on who will do more to help the middle class.

The problem for Obama: This isn’t translating into much of an overall lead. In the ABC/WaPo poll, he’s clinging to a 3-point edge, 49 to 46 percent, while the Real Clear Politics average of all polls puts his lead at just under 2 points. There are a lot of voters, in other words, who see Romney pretty much as the Obama campaign wants them to see him but who are still willing to support him anyway.

This speaks to the challenge of running for reelection against a backdrop of pervasive economic anxiety. It gives swing voters a strong incentive to vote the incumbent out, and tends to lower the bar in terms of what they’re willing to accept in a challenger candidate. The ABC/WaPo numbers offer a glimpse of this phenomenon at work.

When it comes to making the race competitive, the key for Romney seems to be a specific type of voter: white, middle-/working-class, and economically struggling. The poll finds that these voters agree with the idea that Romney will better serve the interests of the rich and financial institutions, but that they also see him as better for the middle class. According to the Post’s write-up:

Among white voters trying to stay in the middle class, Romney is considered the better candidate for that group by a 20-point margin; Obama is preferred by better than 3 to 1 among middle-class nonwhite voters, regardless of their sense of security.

This dovetails with earlier polling that showed Obama’s support from non-college-educated white voters – which was never that strong to begin with – plunging to new lows, particularly with men. Several theories have been proposed to explain this, including the idea that it reflects the culture-based attacks and insinuations that have been a staple of the right’s opposition to Obama. There may be something to that, but according to ABC/WaPo nearly three-quarters of whites who say they’re struggling lack college degrees, so they’re sympathy to Romney might simply reflect their own economic anxiety, and their instinct to punish whoever’s running the country for it.

That’s precisely the instinct that Romney’s message is designed to stoke. His economic pitch is in many ways contradictory and incoherent, but that’s intentional. Romney isn’t trying to sell Americans on some detailed, comprehensive plan to rebuild the economy. His goal is to offer broad, pleasant-sounding policy prescriptions while playing up dire statistics and anecdotes about the economy and the deficit. When you really boil it down, as I’ve written before, the Romney message is simply this: If you’re feeling anxious about the economy, don’t ask questions – just vote out the guy in charge. The ABC/WaPo numbers are an indicator of the potential effectiveness of that strategy.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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