About that 13-point Obama lead …

Take it with a big grain of salt, but a new poll is a reminder that Obama is probably doing better than he should

Published June 20, 2012 12:43PM (EDT)

It’s very, very doubtful that Barack Obama is really running 13 points ahead of Mitt Romney, as a new Bloomberg poll shows. With so many outlets conducting surveys so frequently these days, the occasional funny result is inevitable. Remember when Barack Obama’s approval rating seemed to crash overnight a few months ago? That was what one CBS/New York Times poll found, but it quickly proved to be an aberration, with other outlets putting his approval score where it’s been for much of his presidency, just under 50 percent.

We may end up looking back at the new Bloomberg numbers the same way. The poll puts Obama at 53 percent and Romney at 40, and gives Obama a 53 percent job approval score. Compare that with what Real Clear Politics’ average of all polls finds: an Obama approval rating of 47.9 percent and an Obama horse-race lead of 2.1 points, 46.5 to 44.4 percent. If other polls in the coming days and weeks show a similar, sudden bulge for Obama, then we can say that Bloomberg was the first to spot a trend. Until and unless that happens, though, its overall findings could just as easily be an outlier.

That said, the poll is still something of an antidote to the consensus that has sprung up recently in the political world about the supposedly flailing state of Obama’s reelection efforts. Even if Obama isn’t actually ahead by 13 points, there’s still plenty of evidence that he’s faring better than an incumbent president should under the current economic conditions. His approval rating, as political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck have explained, continues to overperform a forecasting model that takes into account 60 years of data on the economy and presidential approval. This, in turn, translates into a better-than-expected showing in head-to-heads with Romney.

Sides and Vavreck point to a few possible explanations for this phenomenon, including Obama’s personal likability. A bigger factor is probably the uniquely catastrophic conditions that Obama inherited – an economy that was free-falling as he took the oath of office. We aren’t dealing with a recession that started on Obama’s watch or that slowly crept up with no one really noticing. There was a specific, traumatic starting point to the economic slump that the country is now in, and polls continue to show that voters remember who was – and wasn’t – president when it happened.

The Bloomberg poll buttresses this point, with 45 percent of respondents saying they’re better off now than they were four years ago, compared to 36 percent who say they’re worse off – even as 62 percent say the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 31 percent say it’s going in the right direction. This is the complicated mix of attitudes that Obama is trying to tap into – frustration and anxiety over where the country is now, but a recognition that the problems are much bigger than one president. In this sense, the comment of one voter polled by Bloomberg has to be encouraging for the White House:

“Obama is the lesser of two evils,” says Rosean Smith, 38, an independent voter from Columbus, Ohio, who says Obama faced unrealistic expectations on the economy. “He was basically handed a sick drug baby and expected to make a genius out of it overnight.”

Bloomberg’s poll also suggests that Romney’s primary season image problem has returned, with just 39 percent viewing him favorably and 55 percent saying he’s more out of touch than Obama with average Americans. Take this with a grain of salt; if the overall margin in the poll is deceptively favorable for Obama, the rest of the data probably will be too. But again, even if Romney isn’t down 13 points, the poll is still another piece of evidence that Romney’s basic strategy – “I’m not Obama, and that’s good enough” – might be insufficient.

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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