So why did President Obama roar out of the Democrats’ national convention in Charlotte with a sudden, seemingly solid lead in the tracking polls?
Did a combination of soft-focus anecdotes of Obama’s personality — Michelle Obama’s tales of a younger Obama who drove a car with a hole in the floor and once fished a used coffee table out of a dumpster — and slashing attacks on Mitt Romney prove to be the formula to dislodge the neck-and-neck status quo that defined this race for the summer?
Republican pollsters, strategists, and messaging specialists are digesting the conventions’ messages, polling data, and focus-group comments and piecing together what messages prompted the few percentage points’ shift in the tracking polls. In a race that has been essentially tied since Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination, every percentage point counts.
Don’t underestimate how much of the bump is wavering or soft Democrats coming home, says Brad Todd, a media strategist for Romney’s 2008 campaign and one of the lead consultants for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010.
“The first lady’s speech was the first shred of a positive campaign the Obama folks have offered,” Todd said. “There probably were a few folks waiting and eager for even a crumb. . . . There is no denying Obama has a deep well of good will with the American public. They wanted him to succeed. They would rather not give up on him, but I think in the end, they will. There’s just no metric of success for voters to grab onto.”
For much of the year, media coverage of the race has suggested that Obama’s poll numbers are kept aloft by an advantage in “favorability” — that while many Americans may not approve of the job Obama is doing or may not think the country is on the right track, they find him personally likeable.
Resurgent Republic is a right-of-center research group founded by former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie and pollster Whit Ares (Gillespie is now an adviser to Mitt Romney). The organization conducted 24 focus groups in battleground states among independents who voted for Obama in 2008, but who are not strongly committed to either candidate this cycle. Luke Frans, the executive director of Resurgent Republic, says the “favorability” discussion is a factor in the thinking of these voters, but it is overstated.
“Favorability is an important metric, but not necessarily vote-determinative,” Frans said. “President Obama had a net positive image in 2010, but that didn’t bail out Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats when voters went to the polls. His favorability is largely based on his being seen as an admirable family man, a good father and husband. That’s why you hear his detractors say Obama isn’t a bad person, just a bad president.”
But emphasizing that President Obama is a likeable guy is often a way for voters to mask their disapproval of his job performance, Frans argues. When Resurgent Republic’s focus-group leaders asked undecided voters to name something President Obama has done in office that they like, they gave him credit for trying, but they struggled to volunteer any domestic accomplishment and instead talked about his personal characteristics.
“Would a candidate rather have more voters like him than not? Sure. I just wouldn’t want this issue to be the sole crutch of a reelection bid,” Frans concluded.
“At the simplest level, people ‘like’ Obama because they see him as a trailblazer — identity politics is still a very powerful thing for many racial and ethnic minorities — who appears to have a good marriage and attractive children,” contends Louisiana-based pollster John Couvillon. “They may not approve of his job performance, but he is seen as a larger-than-life figure.”