What’s keeping Obama in the game

Voters don’t like where the economy is now, but they’re surprisingly optimistic about where it's heading

Published July 4, 2012 2:12PM (EDT)

Earlier this week, CNN unveiled its latest national survey, which gave Barack Obama a three-point edge over Mitt Romney, 49 to 46 percent. This was unremarkable, in that it matched up almost perfectly with the average result of all other recent polls, but inside the poll was a hint about why Obama has been consistently maintaining a slight lead over his opponent for the past few months.

It has the do with optimism, which is at a much higher level among voters now than it was last fall, when Obama’s approval ratings were lodged in the low-40s and his reelection prospects seemed to be dimming. Right now, 56 percent of voters say they expect that economic conditions will be very or somewhat good a year from now, with 39 percent saying the opposite. Last October, those numbers were essentially reversed, with 60 percent of voters seeing unfavorable conditions on the horizon.

This shift may be helping keep Obama in the game. Only 27 percent of voters rate current economic conditions as very or somewhat good, an improvement from last fall (when the number was about half as big) but hardly a level conducive to an incumbent president’s reelection effort. And yet, Obama continues to hold a slim lead over Romney, suggesting that a critical chunk of swing voters haven’t given up on Obama, despite their profound frustration with the weakness of the economy.

The poll finds that the two candidates are in a dead heat when it comes specifically to the economy, with 48 percent saying Romney would handle it better and 47 percent choosing Obama. On the surface, this may seem discouraging for Obama, but not when you compare him to the last president to be denied reelection. At around his point in 1992, a campaign that was driven by the economy and almost nothing else, George H.W. Bush was running far behind Bill Clinton on the same question. A poll from early September of that year, for instance, found 52 percent of voters saying Clinton would do a better job handling the economy, with only 36 percent choosing the incumbent. (Note that this finding came from the 10-week period in the summer and early fall when Ross Perot was on the sidelines and it was a two-way race.)

At some point in the ’92 campaign, swing voters simply tuned out the incumbent. That hasn’t happened in this race, at least not yet. The surprising optimism that voters are expressing may be related to the unique nature of the economic gloom Obama has presided over. Unlike the recession that sunk Bush in ’92, this didn’t exactly sneak up on Americans. There was a very specific starting point that just about everyone remembers – the meltdown of 2008. As I’ve written before, this has seemingly resulted in Obama getting the benefit of the doubt, with voters continuing to say they blame his predecessor, George W. Bush, more than Obama for the current state of the economy. The optimism findings in the CNN poll might also reflect this, with voters not automatically assuming the economy reflects the policies of the president.

That said, we’re now about 48 hours away from the next round of unemployment data. After months of steady, if incremental, improvement late last year and early this year, the most recent reports have taken a turn for the discouraging. Bad news on Friday, and in the months ahead, could erode the public’s optimism, and with it Obama’s reelection hopes.

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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