This morning I talked with Obama’s lead pollster, Joel Benenson, and he offered fresh detail on the campaign’s theory of the race and on why the President was able to win reelection amid such a bad economy.

“From the start, you had a theory on the Republican side: They were going to make this a referendum on President Obama, using the old Ronald Reagan question,” Benen told me, in a reference to Reagan’s famous “are you better off” line.

“But the American people were focused on, which candidate is going to make my life better over the next four years?” Benenson continued.

“Overwhelmingly, Americans viewed the economic crisis and recession as an extraordinary circumstance — not as an ordinary recession,” Benenson continued, adding that “the more Romney and Republicans tried to talk about this as an ordinary recession,” rather than a “massive crisis,” the more they seemed “out of touch and tone deaf.”

If that’s right, the irony is striking. Romney cast Obama as a failure, based on the notion that the recovery was not proceeding as fast as other recoveries have. But this may not have resonated with voters because they understood that Obama had inherited an extraordinary situation — exactly the idea Romney tried so hard to get voters to forget.

Benenson’s firm took a national poll before the election that illustrates this dynamic, and he shared the results in a New York Times op ed this morning. It found voters agreed by more than three to one — 74 to 23 — that the 2008 meltdown was an “extraordinary crisis more severe than we’ve seen in decades,” rather than “a typical recession that the country has every several years.”

What’s more, a solid majority, 57 percent, believed that the problems created by the crisis were “too severe for anyone to fix in a single term.” Only four in 10 thought another president would have been able to do more to get the economy going in four years than Obama did. This message was brilliantly conveyed in Bill Clinton’s convention speech.

Readers will recall that this theory of the race — that voters wouldn’t be persuaded that Obama was an abject failure on the economy, and would instead take a longer view — has been a regular fixture on this blog for months.

The Romney camp always imagined the race would end with a late 1980-style break to the Republican — again because it compared this crisis to the late 1970s. Benenson says Romneyworld’s flawed theory of the race reflected a deeper problem: The GOP is trapped in the 1980s.

“They are living in a 1980s model — all you have to do is say, `we’re going to cut taxes, and the world will be fine,’” Benenson said, adding middle class voters no longer listen to that argument, because they feel “those at the top have benefitted more than they have.” Result: Voters preferred Obama’s willingness to fight for them to any technical proficiency they thought Romney had on the economy, his poll showed.

Benenson added that Republicans are hurting themselves by putting up a “roadblock to dealing seriously with developing new energy sources” and refusing to get serious about “reforming immigration in a way that values the tradition of America as a melting pot.”

“On all the issues of the day, their party is a little bit out of gas,” Benenson said. “They’re having the same conversation they had 25 years ago.”