Mitt Romney Passes the Competence Test

For all the focus on President Obama’s narrow lead over Mitt Romney in the latest poll from Quinnipiac University, the more interesting numbers are in the full results, where you can find a better account of how voters perceive the two men. Independents, for example, are neither thrilled nor satisfied with the president. His favorability rating is 19 points underwater at 37/56, while his job-approval numbers are 17 points in the negative at 39/56. Overall, 47 percent of voters approve of Obama’s performance, while 48 percent disapprove.

For now, this is the number to watch. If it goes up, and reaches 50 percent by the fall, then Obama stands a good chance of being re-elected, even if it is a tight race. But if it declines from its current place—to the low 40s—then Obama will likely finish the year as a one-term president.

More important, this will be true even if Romney stays unpopular with the large plurality of Americans—for challengers to an incumbent president, popularity or approval are less important than whether the public feels comfortable with them in a leadership position. If the Quinnipiac poll shows anything, it’s that voters are ready to accept Romney’s claim to competence. Sixty-one percent of voters would say that the former Massachusetts governor has “strong leadership qualities,” including 64 percent of independents, 59 percent of women, and 52 percent of Hispanics.

Voters will almost certainly trust Romney to get things done if elected president. The challenge for Obama is to highlight the extent to which those “things” are a recipe for disaster.