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Who wins a “devil you know vs devil you don’t” election?

at 12:34 PM ET, 07/25/2012

One thing is starkly clear from the last month of the 2012 presidential campaign: We are headed toward a lowest common denominator, devil-you-know-versus-devil-you-don’t election in which the winner will not so much triumph as survive.


A devil you know. (Photo by Rick Scavetta/U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern)
The latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll makes that point in stark terms. Forty three percent of respondents viewed President Obama negatively while 40 percent saw Romney in that light; the percentage of people who regarded Obama and Romney “very negatively” was at an all-time high (or low, depending on your perspective) in the NBC-WSJ data.

“This is not characteristic … for July,” GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, told NBC. “These are numbers you usually see in October.”

Given the tenor of the campaign — Romney singing “America the Beautiful” in an Obama ad, a prominent Romney surrogate questioning Obama’s American-ness — it’s not surprising that the public’s perception of the two men is so negative.

Given that things are only going to get worse from here — the election is still 104 days away — the prevailing question is: Who wins a race that resembles nothing so much as a political mudfight?

The truth of the matter is no one really knows. (The Fix asked around among some smart political strategists on both sides of the aisle and the response was a collective shoulder shrug.)

But, you can make a case for Obama and Romney. (Cue outrage of those who decry “on the one hand, on the other hand” journalism.)

First, the Obama case.

People like the President more than they do Romney. Obama has a 30- point edge on which candidate is more likable, an 11-point edge on which candidate understands the problems of average Americans and an eight-point edge on which is more honest and trustworthy, according to new Gallup polling.

While Obama’s positive (and negative) numbers are not where his allies would like them to be, they are still better than Romney’s. And Romney’s numbers not only compare poorly to the President’s but they also don’t fare well when matched up against other Republican presidential nominees.

At this point in 2008, for example Arizona Sen. John McCain has a 12-point net positive rating in the NBC-WSJ poll. In 1996, then Kansas Sen. Bob Dole had a 39 percent positive/36 percent negative rating in NBC-WSJ data.

Those numbers suggest that the lack of regard for Romney is unique to him and, therefore, more problematic politically as people are already disinclined to give him the benefit of the doubt in a personal political war.

Now, the Romney case.

This election has been, is and will always be about the economy and President Obama’s (mis)handling of it. And the American public has already made its mind up that they don’t like what he has done. In the latest NBC-WSJ poll, 43 percent of people said Romney had “good ideas” for the economy while just 36 percent of people said Obama did.

The more the president tries to re-focus the race on things like Bain or tax returns, the more clear it is that he knows he can’t win an economic referendum election.

And, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that for all their attacks on Romney, it’s not working. A USA Today poll showed that more than six in ten people believe Romney’s business experience — including at Bain — would help him make good decisions in office.

Voters see Obama’s personal attacks on Romney as what they are:a distraction from the main issue of the day, week, month and year. If he keeps going down this negative road, all Obama does is make himself look that much more out of touch with the economic concerns of the country.

Both arguments have their adherents and both have some amount of credible polling data to back them up. Of course, what neither side can know — and what polling can’t tell us — is whether a further descent into negativity boomerangs against one candidate more than the other.

In the NBC-WSJ poll, 34 percent of people said both Obama and Romney were running negative campaigns. Twenty two percent said Obama was running the more negative campaign while 12 percent said Romney was being more negative.

From that result, Obama is in slightly more danger of being labeled as the mud-thrower but the plurality of people who think both are running negative campaigns suggests that a "pox on both your houses” mentality is the most likely outcome of this race to the political bottom.

Brace yourselves: It’s going to get worse (and more negative) before it gets better. Which of the two men emerges less dirty remains to be seen.

 
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