Mitt Romney, front-runner?

After a brutal few weeks of coverage about his Bain past and tax dodginess, a poll puts him….ahead of Obama

Published July 19, 2012 12:35PM (EDT)

A new CBS News/New York Times poll that shows Mitt Romney pulling 2 points ahead of President Obama figures to get plenty of play today. That’s fair enough – what else are we going to talk about on a lazy mid-July day? – but let’s not get carried away about what the results mean, at least not yet.

The poll gives Romney a 45-43 percent edge over Obama, the first time Romney has led in the survey since early January. Obama’s approval rating, according to the poll, has fallen to 44 percent, a drop of 4 points since the last survey and a dangerously low level for an incumbent. A key reason for the change can be found in respondents’ assessment of Obama’s economic record; just 39 percent approve now, compared to 44 percent the last time around.

Given how much of the political media’s recent coverage has been focused on Romney’s taxes and business background and his (supposedly) blundering and inept campaign, the results certainly raise the question of whether any of it has mattered at all to voters, and if the Romney campaign’s decision to simply run against the “Obama economy” and say nothing else might end up working after all.

The short answer is: It might. But be careful. This is one poll in an ever-evolving ocean of independent surveys. It could be the first indicator of a meaningful shift in the GOP challenger’s favor, but it could just as easily be an outlier.

In fact, we’ve been down the outlier road before with this exact same poll. Remember Obama’s sudden, startling crash back in March? You’re forgiven if you don’t, because it dominated the news for maybe a day, the result of a CBS/NYT poll that showed his approval rating plummeting to 41 percent. It was the worst Obama had ever fared in the survey as president and suggested that the six months of incremental gains he’d made after his debt ceiling nadir of last summer had potentially been erased.

But it ended up being much ado about nothing. Over the next week, six new independent polls were released putting Obama’s approval at 48, 50, 46, 50, 47 and 47 percent. Averaged together, this put him exactly where he was before the CBS/NYT poll came out, proving that it had been an outlier. The episode provided a valuable lesson for horse race watchers, which Jonathan Bernstein explained:

So be careful about putting very much trust in any single poll, no matter how methodologically sound it might be. My advice is to use Pollster or another poll-of-polls average. Be skeptical, too, of stories about “rising” or “falling” poll numbers. News organizations tend to compare their own polls to each other, rather than comparing each poll to an average of all recent polls, which would give us a clearer picture of whether there have been any meaningful changes.

So let’s take Bernstein’s advice and look at the current poll-of-polls averages. Pollster has Obama ahead of Romney by an average of 1.6 points, 46.1 to 44.5 percent, with an approval rating of 46 percent. TPM has it at 1.5 points, 46.1 to 44.6 percent. Real Clear Politics puts the horse race margin at 1.4 points, 46.3 percent to 44.9, and pegs Obama’s approval at 46.4 percent. All of these averages include the new NYT/CBS numbers – as well as a new Fox News poll that also came out last night, which put Obama up by 4 points on Romney.

If you look closely at the trendlines in these averages, it does appear that Obama’s approval numbers have slightly worsened in the last few days and that the horse race has slightly tightened. But we’re talking about a very small change here; last week, he was running about 2.5 points ahead of Romney, this week it’s about 1.5 points. This could be the start of something, but it could also be a blip; if you look at a long-term graph of the polling averages, you’ll find all sorts of seemingly random peaks and valleys. The bigger drop that CBS/NYT shows is not evident in the polling averages, at least not yet.

It’s worth stating for the record that Obama could very well lose this election and that the all of the grief Romney is now taking over Bain and his taxes won’t matter to economically frustrated swing voters. The CBS/NYT poll suggests this possibility, but until and unless other polls follow suit, there’s no reason to say the race is in a different place now than it was at the start of this week.

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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