Candidates race to the bottom

Attack politics are taking a real toll, but Obama is getting the better of it – for now

By Steve Kornacki

Published July 25, 2012 12:16PM (EDT)

The takeaway finding from the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last night is that the negative tone of both presidential campaigns is taking a toll on each candidate’s image.

Mitt Romney, whose numbers had ticked up in the immediate wake of the Republican primary season, is saddled with upside-down popularity. Just 35 percent of voters view him favorably, while 40 percent see him unfavorably. Obama fares better – a 49-43 percent favorable unfavorable score – but his negative score is as high as it’s been in the NBC/WSJ poll since the eve of the 2010 midterms, and his “very unfavorable” number (32 percent) is higher than ever.

Conventional wisdom holds that there’s more danger in this for Romney than Obama, since voters are more familiar with the president and their basic assessment of him is more fixed. Romney, on the other hand, is far less defined, which is why the Obama campaign unleashed such an early and intense barrage against him. The idea is to poison the jury against Romney and to give pause to just enough economically anxious swing voters who would otherwise be inclined to vote out the incumbent.

But the Obama campaign’s decision to release a softer one-minute ad this week in which the president talks directly to the camera suggests they’re concerned about the effect the negative campaign is having on his image. The increase in Obama’s negatives could be related to his own attack efforts – the poll shows more voters believe Obama is running a negative campaign than think Romney is – although his top strategist claims it’s a function of Republican attacks.

For now, at least in the NBC/WSJ poll, Obama is getting the better of all of this, leading Romney by six points in the national horserace, 49 to 43 percent. That 49 percent is identical to the approval rating Obama enjoys in the poll.

But there are some silver linings here for Romney. One is that the new data is a bit at odds with other recent polling. The Real Clear Politics average of all polls has shown the race tightening for the past few weeks, with Romney now trailing by 1.8 points, and puts Obama’s approval at 47 percent. This has happened even as Romney has taken a beating in the press over his tax records and Bain Capital past, a testament to how a rotten economy will keep a challenger in the game almost no matter what.

Romney can also be encouraged by the fact that he hasn’t really had a chance to introduce himself to voters on his own terms yet. But he’ll get one at the Republican convention next month and again in the debates this fall.

The underwhelming favorable numbers he now sports call to mind two recent presidential challengers, one successful and one not. The successful one was Bill Clinton, who was dragged down by poisonously high negatives well into the summer of 1992, thanks to a string of primary season scandals. Like Romney now, Clinton’s numbers were upside-down a month before his party’s convention – a 41-47 percent score in a June ’92 Gallup poll. That improved to 45-43 percent just before the convention started, and by the fall it was a healthier 52-42 percent. We think of Clinton today as one of the most talented politicians in modern history; it’s worth remembering that for much of the ’92 campaign he was considered an unusually flawed and weak candidate.

The unsuccessful candidate was John Kerry, who suffered after enduring a wave of Republican attacks in the summer of 2004. When Republicans finished their convention, Kerry had fallen far behind George W. Bush, and at least one poll gave him an upside-down favorable score. But strong debate performances lifted his favorable number and narrowed the horserace gap. Obviously, Kerry didn’t win, but his campaign did show that damage endured over the summer doesn’t have to be permanent.

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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2012 Elections Barack Obama Mitt Romney Opening Shot Politics