Why Is Romney Still Behind?

So far in his campaign for the presidency, Mitt Romney has had four big chances to move the needle in his direction. At the beginning, when he won the Republican nomination; during June, when it became clear that the economy was slowing down; last month, when he went abroad; and two weekends ago, when he chose Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate.

In no case did he see a meaningful boost. Consolidating Republicans behind his candidacy garnered him a 45 percent vote share—the floor for either the Democratic or Republican nominee—and choosing Ryan as his running mate gave him a boost of one percentage point—four points below the median vice-presidential bump. Here is what the race has looked like since April, when the general election began in earnest:

For all the gaffes and controversies, nothing has changed. President Obama continues to hold a small but steady lead over Romney, and Romney remains unable to break past the 45-percent threshold.

The latest poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal is another data point that confirms this hypothesis. In it, Barack Obama takes 48 percent among registered voters to Mitt Romney’s 44 percent. Obama’s popularity is in line with his performance in the head-to-head match-up: 48 percent of Americans hold a positive view of him; 43 percent hold a negative one. Mitt Romney, by contrast, is still disliked by a significant chunk of Americans: only 38 percent hold a positive view of him; 44 percent hold a negative one.

The good news for Romney is that Americans trust him to fix the economy—44 percent of voters say he has good ideas for how to improve the economy, compared with 38 percent for Obama.

As for everything else? Only 23 percent say Romney is easy-going and likeable, compared with 58 percent for Obama. Only 24 percent trust him to deal effectively with women’s issues; 30 percent say he cares about average people; and 34 percent say he would be good at dealing with issues of concern to seniors. A solid majority of respondents—51 percent—say Romney is “out-of-step” with the mainstream and 44 percent disagree. By contrast, 54 percent say that Obama is in step with the thinking of most Americans.

This isn’t good news for Romney, but none of it answers the core question: Given the poor economy, why can’t Romney establish a lead in the race? Americans are apt to dismiss incumbents when economic conditions are poor, and we are entering our third year of mass unemployment.

Buried in the poll results are a few possible answers.

First, Americans are more hopeful than not about where the economy is going; 36 percent say the economy will get better in the next 12 months, compared with 18 percent who say it will get worse. Fifty percent say the economy is recovering compared with the 46 percent who say its stagnant, and when asked if they are optimistic, Americans are split: 46 percent say yes, and 46 percent say no.

What’s more, 34 percent are “extremely” or “quite” confident that Obama has the right set of goals and policies to improve the economy. Only 27 percent say the same for Romney.

In short, the public isn’t as down on the economy as we might think, and because of this, voters aren’t ready to dump Obama.

Romney has less than three months to convince them otherwise, and it’s still possible. But the window is closing—fast. Challengers rarely overtake incumbents in the fall—the 1980 presidential election is widely cited as an important exception, but even then, Ronald Reagan’s lead over Jimmy Carter was well-established going into the last leg of the campaign.

Romney needs to recover soon, or on November 7, he’ll be heading back to Massachusetts.

For more polling information, go to the Prospect’s 2012 election map.