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Obama Spending Blitz Brings Little Change in Race

Obama Spending Blitz Brings Little Change in Race

By Sean Trende - July 23, 2012


A month ago, I suggested that the punditry's coverage of the presidential race might indicate a case of collective histrionic personality disorder. Its reaction to President Obama's June spending push hasn't improved the prognosis. In the course of a few weeks, the narrative has shifted from one where it was time for the Democrats to panic to one where Mitt Romney's "Death Star" had curiously disappeared to another where Romney is supposed to panic.

What do the facts actually show? We know that Obama heavily outspent Romney in June, in part because the Romney campaign can’t yet spend funds earmarked for the general election. We know that these ads have focused incessantly on the presumptive GOP nominee’s experience at Bain Capital, and that they are quite good. We know that the media has piled on, with questions about when Romney’s tenure at Bain ended and why he refuses to provide the traditional number of income tax returns. And we know that the president leads Romney in the RCP Averages, both nationally and in most of the swing states.

But where is the evidence that anything has changed, outside of the media narrative? PrioritiesUSA, the Obama campaign’s super PAC, suggests this as the key finding: “37% of voters say that Romney’s business experience at Bain Capital make them LESS likely to vote for him. Just 27% say it makes them MORE likely to vote for him.”

But another way of reporting this information would be to say that, after a seven- to eight-figure ad blitz aimed at convincing voters that Romney is a cross between the buffoonish Thurston Howell III and the rapacious Gordon Gekko, 63 percent of voters either find Romney’s business experience irrelevant or say it makes them more likely to vote for him. (Of course, it also matters how those 37 percent are distributed. If the bulk of those who find Romney’s business experience unpalatable are Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents, then this isn’t much of a problem for the Republican’s campaign.)

Regardless, with Romney trailing, this is merely more of the same. We haven’t really seen any movement in the RCP Average since the GOP primary race ended in early May: The president has held a steady lead of one to three points.

Let’s break this down a bit further. Below is a chart of all the polls in the various RCP Averages where the pollster published a sample taken in July and another in the same jurisdiction taken in either May or June. For Gallup’s tracking poll, I simply averaged the findings for June and for July (to date).

The results? On average, the polls have moved two-tenths of a point toward the president during this time period. That’s net movement, by the way, meaning that he’s moved up a tenth of a point and Romney has moved down a tenth of a point, on average. Looking at state polls only, we see marginal movement toward Romney. If we look at only the swingiest of swing states -- Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia -- we see about two-thirds of a point movement toward Obama. That’s not much bang for the buck.

In fact, there’s some evidence that the advertising barrage is actually hurting the president. Incumbent campaigns are usually loath to go negative because negative ads tend to drive down the incumbent as well as the challenger, and because they tend to increase the challenger’s name recognition (something that is not really an issue in a presidential race).

The following chart shows a rolling five-poll average of the president’s and Romney’s favorability ratings from January through July.

As you can see, the president’s favorability ratings begin to dip downward at the beginning of June, then collapse at the end of the month. This doesn’t seem to be a function of polls with pro-Republican “house effects” moving into the averages: three of the four surveys taken in July show the president with a worse favorability rating than that pollster’s previous iteration.

At the same time, it isn’t clear that he got anything in exchange. All four July polls show Romney with a better favorability rating than their previous iteration. This can be chalked up to the small number of polls in our July sample here, but I’ll admit I was a bit surprised that Romney didn’t show any decline in his favorables.

The superficial takeaway is that this is bad news for the president. He’s unleashed something of a “shock and awe” campaign and fired off what many think is one of his most damaging bullets against Romney, with little to show for it.

He’ll also be going into the fall campaign at financial parity -- at best -- with Romney. This is a position he’s never been in before. He buried Alan Keyes in the fall of 2004, was able to outspend Hillary Clinton down the stretch in the spring of 2008, and had a massive advantage in the fall of that year when John McCain opted to take federal matching funds. A page from past Obama playbooks has now been torn out.

But this is all speculative stuff -- Obama may have some devastating opposition research on Romney that we’re unaware of, and the fundraising parity with the Romney campaign may not matter outside of the margins. And we don’t know the counterfactual: Would his polling edge have continued to slide had he not taken to the airwaves?

I think the best we can say is that this remains a remarkably stable race, with the president barely ahead of his challenger with roughly 100 days to go. In other words, my basic assessment of the race has remained roughly unchanged from where it was a year ago: The president’s election chances are roughly 50-50. 

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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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