Where Does Obama Stand?

If you are a committed Democrat or partisan Republican, then it seems that, for today at least, you have two polls to choose from. Republicans can look with glee at a USA Today and Gallup poll of registered voters in swing states, where former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum holds a 50–45 lead over President Obama, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney takes first place at 48 to 46.

By contrast, the new Battleground Poll from Politico and George Washington University—which focuses on the same swing states—is exceptionally favorable to Democrats and supporters of the president. In this survey, President Obama’s approval rating increased to 53 percent—up from 44 percent in November—and he leads Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum by 10 and 11 points, respectively. Indeed, against a generic Republican, this lead shrinks to a still-impressive 5 points. His greatest gain comes from voters who say they “approve strongly” of the president. In November, they represented 27 percent of surveyed voters; now, they’re 38 percent.

The results of both polls are so divergent that it’s hard to draw a firm conclusion. I’m inclined to give more weight to the Politico poll, if only because it falls on the side of a recent trend—over the last two months, President Obama has moved from an underdog in the presidential race to a consistent favorite. His approval rating has inched toward 50 percent, and in head-to-head matchups, he’s ahead by an average of 5.2 points against Romney, and 6.1 points for Santorum. This graph, against Romney, gives you an idea of what the trend actually looks like:

As for the Gallup poll, there is at least one thing say about the results. The simple fact about American politics is that most people are reliable partisans, and most candidates—even weak ones—will enter the election with a floor of about 45 percent. In other words, Obama is in for a close fight, even if he is running against a far-right candidate like Rick Santorum.

Which is why, for as much as liberals would like to see the GOP nominate the former Pennsylvania senator, they should be careful what they wish for. Yes, the economy is on the upswing, but Americans are still angry and disappointed with the last three years. A second downturn—or even stagnation—could lead voters to pin their feelings on Obama, and leave the country with the most extreme president in history.