President Obama’s best chance at winning a second term this fall revolves around turning the race from a straight referendum on his economic policies and toward a debate about which candidate better shares voters’ values, according to two new national polls.
But, when the questions — in both polls — focus on economic ideas and vision, the two candidates’ fates in the race are reversed.
Forty-three percent of respondents in the NBC-WSJ poll say that Romney has “good ideas for how to improve the economy” while 36 percent say the same of Obama. In Gallup, Romney has a 10-point edge over Obama on the candidate better equipped to handle the economy and a 19-point edge on which of the two men is more able to address the federal budget deficit.
Which narrative comes to define the campaign in its final 100 days or so then has huge implications as to the outcome.
Obama’s latest ad — in which he speaks directly to the camera for the first time in the campaign — is a clear attempt to define the election as a values not an issues choice.
“Over the next four months you have a choice to make,” says Obama “Not just between two political parties or even two people. It’s a choice between two very different plans for our country.”
The contrast Obama is trying to drive in the ad though isn’t really between two different “plans” but between two different sets of values and priorities.
Romney, argues the President, would defend the wealthiest Americans as the expense of everyone else. He, on the other hand, is looking out for average Americans.
The Bain attacks, the call for the release of more tax returns — all of that is aimed at driving a values message.
The Romney message is, of course, diametrically opposed to that values push. Romney has largely avoided engaging on things like his tax returns and Bain — based on a belief from his campaign that there is only one issue in the campaign and that issue is what President Obama did to try to turn around the economy and why it didn’t work.
There’s some polling data to affirm that view. In both a CBS-New York Times poll released last week and new numbers from USA Today/Gallup this week, it’s clear that the economy is the overarching issue for most voters and Romney is regarded as a credible messenger on those issues.
Sixty three percent in the USA Today/Gallup poll said Romney’s business background would help him make “good decisions” on the economy including 63 percent of independent voters.
The message battle over the next five weeks — up to the two parties’ conventions in late August — will focus on whether 2012 is a values vote or an issue vote. Who wins that fight almost certainly wins the election.