By Luke Brinker
Two new polls give President Obama healthy leads over likely GOP challenger Mitt Romney. A Washington Post-ABC News poll puts the president at 51 percent against Romney’s 45 percent, while Rasmussen Reports gives Obama a seven point lead over Romney, 49 percent to 42 percent. RealClearPolitics’s poll of polls has put Obama ahead of Romney since the fall, what’s notable is the size of Obama’s lead, which is now outside the margin of error. But will Obama’s advantage fade once Romney wraps up the GOP nomination and the media focuses on the general election, rather than the damaging daily squabbles among the GOP candidates?
Romney strategists would have us believe that the president’s polling lead is merely a function of his not being enmeshed in a drawn-out fight for his party’s nomination. Once Republicans rally behind Romney, their narrative goes, he’ll give Obama a real run for his money. Of course, it’s extremely difficult to predict where the polls will be nine days – let alone nine months – from now, but the argument that Obama is only ahead because of the brutal GOP contest isn’t particularly persuasive. (As is wont to happen in presidential campaigns, however, Obama’s numbers are virtually certain to wax and wane throughout the year.) On this point, a bit of not-so-distant political history is instructive.
Four years ago, Obama, for all intents and purposes, wrapped up the Democratic nomination in February. He and Hillary Clinton essentially split the Super Tuesday contest on February 5, but after that, Obama won a string of primaries and caucuses, leaving Clinton badly damaged and without another win in February. Clinton eked out narrow victories in Ohio and Texas on March 4, but the delegate math by that point was decidedly stacked against her. Still, Clinton persisted in her campaign, and as the Jeremiah Wright scandal erupted in mid-March, Obama looked newly vulnerable – if not necessarily to Clinton, then certainly in an election against GOP candidate John McCain. Then came Bittergate and renewed questions about Obama’s ability to relate to blue-collar voters, and Clinton scored a substantial win in the Pennsylvania primary on April 22. Until Obama nearly beat Clinton in Indiana (where she had been favored) and easily won North Carolina on May 6, the Democratic nomination fight remained spirited. After Clinton’s near-loss in Indiana, key supporters like George McGovern urged her to drop out of the race. Although Clinton didn’t leave the race until June 7, after all states had had their say, she refrained from attacking Obama and looked mostly interested in leaving the race on her own terms.
Of 48 polls taken between the immediate aftermath of Obama’s losses in Ohio and Texas and early June, when Clinton exited the race, Obama either tied or led McCain in all but ten of them. A Pew poll taken after Obama’s ten-point loss in Pennsylvania gave the then-Illinois senator a healthy six-point lead over John McCain, despite Clinton’s pointed questions over whether Obama could “seal the deal” in the general election. Obama didn’t continue to poll well against McCain because, as is often asserted, his hard-fought primary campaign made him a stronger candidate. Instead, Obama polled ahead of McCain because the fundamentals – discontent with the war in Iraq, Bush fatigue, and a plummeting economy – favored the Democratic Party in 2008. It’s still too early to pronounce definitely on whom the fundamentals will benefit in 2012. As Ezra Klein wrote this morning, it’s conceivable that the European debt crisis could spawn another global downturn and dash Obama’s reelection hopes. But if the nation continues to receive monthly jobs reports like the one last Friday, the fundamentals will favor Obama. The fact that Romney won’t have Newt Gingrich on his hands anymore won’t matter.