Why Neither Candidate Can Move the Polls

Why Neither Candidate Can Move the Polls

By Sean Trende - July 12, 2012

One seemingly odd characteristic of this year's election is the stubborn consistency of the polls. Consider: Since the Republican primary officially ended in early May, 10 of the 13 polls of likely voters have pegged the president's vote share between 43 and 47 percent, while 11 of 13 have shown Mitt Romney in the same band. If we remove the June 15 Bloomberg poll as an outlier, the standard deviation for the president's numbers is two points. For Romney, it is 1.3 points.

Registered voter polls have shown similar results, though they are slightly better for President Obama. Twenty of 25 show the president between 44 and 49 percent, while Romney has been between 42 and 46 percent in a similar number of polls. Overall, the standard deviation for each set is around two points.

All of this is a long way of pointing out that the various events in the campaign that journalists have focused on -- Romney finally wrapping up the Republican nomination, Obama’s “doing fine” comments about the economy, two horrible job reports, the health care decision in the Supreme Court, and the Obama campaign’s spending dump on Romney’s work at Bain Capital -- have done almost nothing to move this race. The president is ahead by a few points among registered voters, and roughly tied with Romney among likely voters.

This shouldn’t be that surprising. The high court ruling upholding Obamacare gave Democrats a temporary boost, but the law is still not particularly popular, at least among voters not already inclined to support the incumbent.

The ineffectiveness of the swing state spending is a bit more puzzling, at least at first blush. After all, Obama has been blanketing the airwaves in swing states with unanswered advertisements painting Romney as a ruthless corporate raider who costs people jobs and ships them overseas. Many of these spots are quite powerful.

The problem, however, is that elections are largely referenda on the incumbent. It takes something very powerful for the people to choose an unpopular incumbent over a challenger of any stripe.

Spending alone won’t do it (Jamelle Bouie beat me to this point yesterday in an article that's well worth the read). To see why, let’s look at congressional races, which provide a larger dataset. The following chart shows incumbent spending margins from the 2006 election (for which I had data handy) and the incumbent margin of victory:

As you can see, there’s almost no relationship here between increased incumbent spending margin, and the incumbent’s margin of victory. In fact, several incumbents lost that year despite heavily outspending their opponents (this was even more marked in 2010). If we run a regression of the two variables, spending margin is barely statistically significant, and explains only a tiny percent of the variance (the adjusted r-square is .018).

In a presidential campaign, both candidates are incredibly well-funded, to the point where they can achieve saturation media coverage in most major markets and still have money left over. This is especially true for Obama, who is a known quantity. His spending just isn’t likely to do that much to change the race, unless he hits upon an argument that disqualifies his opponent.

And variants of the Bain argument simply haven’t fared that well at the ballot box. Consider two recent examples from a pair of swing states in 2010. In Ohio, Ted Strickland savaged John Kasich with advertisements highlighting Kasich’s partnership with Lehman Brothers (which, you might recall, played a large role in the financial collapse). Kasich still won. In neighboring Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey was on the receiving end of a nasty ad campaign tying him to Wall Street and outsourcing to China. As one of my friends who lives in Pittsburgh put it, “by the end of the campaign, you’d have thought Toomey lived in China.”

Those arguments would probably have worked better in a year like 2012, where the Democratic brand isn’t as weak. But the flip side of this coin is that Obama is no Ted Strickland, who represented Appalachian Ohio in Congress for 14 years, and certainly isn’t Admiral Joe Sestak.

That, I think, is the core problem for those making the “class warfare” argument. If the Democrats had a more populist nominee like Brian Schweitzer, he would probably have the credibility to make this case. But Obama is particularly weak among the voters to whom this line of argumentation is meant to appeal. It cuts down on the effectiveness.

Probably there is more to come, and maybe this is merely softening Romney up for the fall. But for now, it really isn’t all that surprising that the president has been unable to move the dial. His attacks on Romney simply aren’t enough to disqualify the former Massachusetts governor at this point, or to compensate for his own relative unpopularity, especially with working class white voters.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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