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Erosion in the Rust Belt for President Obama?

at 04:43 PM ET, 08/02/2011

New polling numbers out of Pennsylvania suggest that President Obama’s bid for a second term could be on somewhat shaky ground in the industrial midwest — aka the “Rust Belt” — as his support in the region has eroded in recent months.

In a Quinnipiac University poll conducted late last month, just 43 percent of Pennsylvania voters approved of the job Obama is doing in office while 54 percent disapproved.

In a head-to-head matchup, Obama and former Massachusetts governor and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney are in a dead heat — 44 percent Romney, 42 percent Obama —, which is a significant change from a June Quinnipiac poll that showed the president leading Romney by seven points.

The Pennsylvania data is the latest piece of evidence that Obama’s numbers in the Rust Belt — loosely defined as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin — is nowhere near where he and his political team would like them to be 15 months from an election.

Slower-than-the-national-average population growth in the Rust Belt means that the four states mentioned above will lose four congressional districts before 2012 but the quartet remains an electoral treasure trove for any national candidate.

Combined, the four states have 64 electoral votes, roughly one-quarter of the 270 a candidate needs to win the presidency.
(The Rust Belt.)

And, in 2008, Obama carried all four with (relative) ease; he won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by double digits and Ohio by five points over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

But, in addition to the Pennsylvania survey there have been several other polls conducted this summer suggesting that the Rust Belt is likely to be far more competitive in 2012 than it was in 2008.

In Ohio, a Quinnipiac University poll in mid-July showed 46 percent of voters approving of how Obama was handling his job and 50 percent disapproving. In a head to head against Romney, it was Obama 45 percent and Romney 41 percent.

An EPIC-MRA poll conducted last month in Michigan found Romney taking 46 percent to Obama’s 42 percent. That result may be skewed somewhat, however, due to Romney’s home state connections in the Wolverine State. (Romney’s father, George, was the governor of Michigan during the 1960s.)

The news for Obama was slightly better in Wisconsin where the Badger Poll found that 50 percent approved of the job he was doing as compared to 44 percent who disapproved — although nearly two thirds of the sample (64 percent) described themselves as “dissatisfied” with the way things were going in the country.

(Worth noting: Public Policy Polling data in Michigan and Ohio showed Obama in stronger shape in each state but due to questions with the survey’s methodology the Post doesn’t publish the firm’s results.)

While Obama’s numbers seem to have taken a hit in the Rust Belt over the past few months, there are several reasons why he and his team don’t need to go into full panic mode yet.

Most importantly, history is on Obama’s side. No Republican presidential nominee has won Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan back in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 was the last GOP nominee to carry either Pennsylvania or Michigan.

(George W. Bush came the closest to breaking that streak in each of the three states; he lost Wisconsin by less than a point and came up three points short in Pennsylvania and Michigan in 2004)

Ohio has long been competitive at the presidential level with each side winning it twice in the last four elections.

The other reason to take the polling cited above cum grano salis is that the race has yet to engage in any meaningful way. Republicans won’t settle on their nominee until the early spring (at the earliest).

That means that most voters still know very little about the Republican field and may well simply be choosing someone other than Obama when asked a ballot test question by pollsters. Once the race is fully joined, it will be a choice between a well-defined Obama and a well-defined — for good and bad — Republican nominee.

Events, too, are likely to intervene. Obama allies note that the Pennsylvania Quinnipiac poll was taken in the heat of the debt ceiling debate when no politicians looked all that good.

With a deal done, they argue, Obama’s numbers will improve. There is some evidence in the poll to back up that idea; 44 percent of Pennsylvania voters said Obama was acting more responsibly in regards the debt debate as opposed to 37 percent who said Republicans were the more responsible party.

Obama’s fate in the Rust Belt, like his fate in the rest of the country, almost certainly hinges on the relative health of the economy. But, with economic anxiety riding higher in the Industrial Midwest than in almost any other region of the country, the President’s task of convincing voters that he has earned four more years will be that much more difficult.

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