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Cha-Cha-Changes... Not Yet

The polls have maintained a serene stability. What about all those dramatic twists and turns so breathlessly covered by cable news? The showdown over contraception. The "Etch-a-Sketch" moment. The impact? Nothing changed.
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The economy is stalled. So is the campaign. Nothing much has changed since it became clear in February that Mitt Romney would be the Republican nominee.

Some 65 non-partisan national polls have been taken since early February. Average the poll results every two weeks and what happens? Nothing. Obama's lead has bounced around from one point to six. No trend.

What about all those dramatic twists and turns so breathlessly covered by cable news? The showdown over contraception. The Romney campaign's "Etch-a-Sketch" moment. The impact? Nothing changed.

What about the disappointing jobs numbers? The Washington Post reported that "in the wake of the May jobs report, President Obama's economic job approval rating hardly moved at all, neither did his support in a contest with Romney." The Supreme Court's decision to uphold health care reform? CNN's poll at the end of May showed Obama 49, Romney 46. And CNN's poll at the end of June following the health care decision? Obama 49, Romney 46.

The polls have maintained a serene stability: usually Obama slightly ahead but never by a comfortable margin. The latest poll? That would be by ABC News and the Washington Post, July 5 to 8: Obama 47, Romney 47.

Oh my God, could 2012 be another 2000 with a disputed outcome? Yes it could. But the 2000 election was close for a different reason.

When an election is close, it gives the impression voters are deeply polarized. But a close vote can mean something else, namely, that voters can't make up their minds. They see things they like, and dislike, about both candidates. Pollsters know that when a poll question gets a 50-50 response, it can mean either that people are sharply divided or that they have mixed feelings and many are picking an answer at random.

Ask people which they would prefer, ice cream or apple pie, and you would probably get close to a 50-50 split. Not because the public is deeply polarized between pie and ice cream, but because most people like both and have trouble making up their minds. They choose at random.

Americans were two-minded about the 2000 election. In overwhelming numbers, they said it was the best economy of their lifetime. But in overwhelming numbers, they also thought the country needed a change of leadership after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Hence, the excruciating closeness of the result.

This year is different. Americans are not exactly two-minded. They're divided. Half the country is of one mind and half is of another mind. About what? About President Obama, of course. Half the country loves him and half the country hates him. So far at least, nothing seems to change their minds.

The Gallup poll has a simple index to measure polarization: the difference between the job ratings given to presidents by supporters of their own party and supporters of the opposition party. For the six presidents before Ronald Reagan (Dwight Eisenhower through Jimmy Carter), the partisan difference averaged 34 points. From Reagan through George W. Bush, the average difference between Democrats and Republicans jumped to 55 points.

What is it now? A whopping 86 percent of Democrats approve of the job President Obama is doing. Among, Republicans, the figure is a paltry 11 percent. A 75-point difference!

Right now, the campaign is dominated by two prevailing perceptions. One is that President Obama is not up to the job. His rating for handling the economy in the Post-ABC poll is 54 to 44 percent negative. The other is that Mitt Romney is not very likeable. Voters call Obama "the more friendly and likeable person" by a huge margin, 63 to 26 percent. A lot of money is going to be spent -- maybe upwards of $2 billion -- trying to change those perceptions.

It has not worked so far, and it may not work without some major transforming events. A sudden spurt of economic growth? A "new Romney?" Don't count on it.

The alternative is to fire up your base. Both candidates have been doing that. Romney favors an indefinite extension of all the Bush tax cuts and opposes extending unemployment benefits. Obama has come out for same-sex marriage, for ending tax cuts for the rich and against the deportation of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

Firing up the base also means demonizing the opposition. The Post reports "the costliest blitz of early campaign advertising the country has ever seen." Much of it negative. "The Obama team and its allies have relentlessly attacked Romney's experience at Bain Capital," while "Romney and his supporters... have focused a considerable portion of spending on Obama's economic record."

So far this year, persuasion doesn't seem to be working. If you can't change people's minds, an alternative is to beat their brains out.

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