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A tale of two campaigns

at 12:36 PM ET, 07/19/2012

There are two campaigns for president happening simultaneously right now.


MAUMEE, OH - JULY 05: U.S. President Barack Obama wipes his brow while speaking at a campaign event at the Wolcott House Museum Complex July 5, 2012 in Maumee, Ohio. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
One is being staged inside Washington — and President Obama is winning that one resoundingly. The other is set in the rest of the country — and that one is a dead heat between Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

That disconnect was driven home with the release of three national polls on Wednesday by the New York Times/CBS, Fox News and National Public Radio.

In the NYT/CBS poll, Romney took 47 percent to 46 percent for Obama; the NPR poll put the race at Obama 47 percent, Romney 45 percent, and Fox News gave Obama a four-point edge.

The tightness of those three surveys is consistent with polling over the last month despite the fact that Romney has seemingly had one of the worst periods of his general election campaign, buffeted by questions about when he left Bain Capital and why he won’t release more of his tax returns.

This chart from Real Clear Politics that documents the last month in public polling on the race tells the story.

Why the disconnect?

In part due to the fact that the massive political media complex, which includes this blog, is constantly hungry for the latest news and analysis about what is happening on the campaign trail and how/why it will impact the overall race. Some of those stories matter to the average voter. Most don’t.

The other major factor is that huge swaths of the electorate are simply locked in and aren’t affected by the daily ups and downs that people like us spend all of our time analyzing.

Hard partisans have long been in their ideological camps, but even soft partisans — those who lean toward one party or the other — have now chosen sides. In the NYT-CBS poll, just five percent of people said they didn’t know who they would support — a minuscule number of undecideds with the election still more than 100 days off.

Not only have most voters made their minds up but they have also seemingly decided that this election is about the economy — first, second and third.

In Gallup polling, two-thirds of people said the most important issue facing the country is economic-related ( jobs, budget deficit, etc.) while 43 percent named non-economic issues.

And, on that economic front President Obama is clearly struggling. Just 39 percent in the NYT-CBS survey approved of how he is handling the economy while 55 percent disapproved. That’s a marked change from April when Obama’s economic approval (44%) and disapproval (48%) ratings ran far closer. Another troubling number for Obama: 51 percent of people in the NYT-CBS poll say that a president “can do a lot” to make the economy better, up 10 points from those who said the same in September 2011.

What those polling realities make clear is that the underlying dynamics of the race are not only set but set in a way that is not favorable to the incumbent. That means that while Obama may be running up the score in the daily Washington campaign tally, it’s making only a slight dent (at best) in the broader national campaign.

That’s not to say that things can’t change. While it seems to those of us in Washington that the attacks on Bain and Romney’s tax returns have been circulating for weeks/months, they are just now starting to penetrate into the broader electorate. And that means that it may well still be too early to judge whether the success of the Obama hits on Romney will alter the basic calculus of the race.(That’s not likely a judgment we can make until after the two parties’ national conventions.)

For now, however, it’s clear that there are two campaigns in America. And in the one that really matters, it’s a dead heat.

 
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