In a memo released this morning, Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse offers a pointed response to Obama’s onslaught of negative ads — it’s not working. Newhouse notes that between April and July, Obama’s lead has dwindled from an average of 5.3 percentage points, to one of 2.4 percentage points. He attributes this change to public discontent with the administration:
President Obama’s campaign will never have a more substantial advertising advantage than it has had over the past few weeks, yet there is no evidence to suggest that the ballot has moved. If throwing the kitchen sink at Gov. Romney while leveraging a two-to-one ad-spending advantage doesn’t move numbers for the President, that’s got to tell you something about the state of the electorate: Voters are frustrated with President Obama’s failure to keep his promises from the 2008 campaign and don’t truly believe the next four years will be any different from the last three and a half. The Obama campaign’s misleading advertising can’t make up for the failed policies of this Administration.
There’s no doubt that the public is unhappy with sluggish economic growth and high unemployment, which is reflected in Obama’s approval ratings; he hovers at 47 percent in most approval surveys, and rarely goes higher than 49 percent. But that’s been the case for the large majority of his term. If 47 percent of Americans have always approved of Obama, then — by Newhouse’s own lights — that should have dictated that he always held a smaller lead over Romney.
Even if you grant Newhouse’s claim that Romney was previously further behind, there's a clear explanation that Newhouse avoids mentioning: the Republican primary, or rather, its conclusion. Obama’s lead over Romney was widest at the beginning of the year, when the former Massachusetts governor was embroiled in a contest with other Republican presidential candidates. Romney’s low favorability ratings, and his poor position vis a vis President Obama, were the result of division among Republican voters. At the time, a majority of Republicans supported other candidates, and saw Romney as a competitor to beat, not a figure to support. Once he became the nominee, however, attitudes rapidly changed — his favorability and overall support rose as Republicans rallied behind him.
If polls are tightening, then it’s likely the result of an election in which both sides are equally supportive of their respective nominees as the general election gets underway. In reality, though, polls haven’t actually tightened. If you remove outliers from the calculation, both Romney and Obama are in the same position they were three months ago. This stasis has a little something for both sides. If you’re inclined to see Obama’s ad campaign as effective, you’ll be disappointed to learn that the polls haven’t budged. Likewise, if you think voters are on the verge of turning against the administration, you shouldn’t hold your breath. I believe it’s too early to say whether Obama’s ads are working. But one thing that is clear is that Romney is not gaining ground on Obama.