Although the president has gained ground on his challenger, the economy will prevent him from running away with the race.
Presidential elections have a lot of moving parts. They rarely turn on any single factor or issue. Take, for example, the tensions over Tehran's nuclear aspirations and the possibility of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities by either Israel or the United States. In five minutes, the tone and direction of this election could completely change. But of the "known unknowns," as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might say, the big one is what happens with the economy between now and Nov. 6.
Recent polls have shown President Obama putting some daylight between himself and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The president's advantage has ranged from 4 points, 49 percent to 45 percent, nationwide in a March 25-26 Gallup/USA Today poll, to as much as 11 points in a March 24-25 CNN/Opinion Research survey, 54 percent to 43 percent. Most recently, an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted April 5-8 splits the difference, with a 7-point spread, 51 percent to 44 percent.
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A separate March 20-26 Gallup/USA Today poll of voters in 12 swing states put Obama's lead at 9 points, 51 percent to 42 percent, compared with Romney's narrow, statistically insignificant leads of 1 and 2 points in similar Gallup/USA Today polls earlier this year in the same dozen states.
The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls puts Obama's advantage at 5.3 percentage points. The Huffington Post/Pollster.com trend estimate gives him a much narrower lead: just 1.6 percentage points.
When a president runs for reelection, his job-approval ratings are more significant than the trial heats. Voters who approve of the job a president is doing are very likely to vote to reelect him. Voters who disapprove are very likely to support the president's opponent. Obama's job ratings have ranged in recent weeks from as low as 44 percent to as high as 50 percent. The RealClearPolitics average and the Huffington Post/Pollster.com trend estimate show Obama's approval rating at 48 percent and his disapproval score at 47 percent.
How quickly and effectively Romney makes the turn from the primary season to a campaign aimed at the general election's swing voters is key. Obama has been running a general-election campaign all along. With Rick Santorum's decision on Tuesday to suspend his campaign, Romney can accelerate his transition. Simply talking to, rather than past, independent and swing voters should gain him a few points.
Without a doubt, Romney and his party have much rehabilitation work to do. The Gallup swing-state survey indicates that among independent voters, he has dropped from an 8-point lead, 49 percent to 41 percent, in October and from a 7-point advantage, 46 percent to 39 percent, in December to a 9-point deficit, 48 percent to 39 percent, in the most recent poll.