Of all the polls released in the last week, the survey on voter enthusiasm by Resurgent Republic, a right-leaning research and polling firm, is perhaps the most important. Its Web site explains:
When looking at those voters who say they are extremely enthusiastic to vote in the presidential election, Republicans hold a double-digit advantage over Democrats, 62 to 49 percent, and the subgroups most likely to support Governor Romney register higher enthusiasm than those backing President Obama, according to our most recent survey July 9-12.
Reliable Republican demographics, such as Protestants, Evangelicals, and white men, score above the median rate of those who are extremely enthusiastic to turnout and far out pace several traditional Democratic voting groups, including Hispanic voters, unmarried, and young voters (18-to-29-year-olds). African-American voters are the exception among Obama supporters and register enthusiasm on par with Republicans.
The higher enthusiasm among Republicans overall will help shrink the traditional Democratic identification advantage on Election Day, which stood at seven points during the 2008 wave election. As a result, national polling with a Democratic voter edge greater than the 2008 margin should be viewed with skepticism.
In addition to the enthusiasm gap, President Obama is underperforming among key members of his coalition. . . .
Among subgroups that President Obama is likely to lose, he’s doing so by a wider margin. The president trails among white men 61 to 30 percent, a 15 point swing compared to 2008 (57 to 41 percent). His support among white non-college educated voters is also down eight points. . . .
Conventional wisdom dictates that undecided voters do not split evenly, and the overwhelmingly negative political climate is a significant hurdle for President Obama in bucking this trend. Strong majorities of voters still believe the country is on the wrong track, and even more feel like the economy is stuck in a recession.
This afternoon I spoke to Resurgent’s veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres. He told me, “What this tells me is that the gap in exit polls in 2008 — plus 7 for Democrats — is very unlikely to occur.” In 2010 the Republican-Democratic split was dead even, as it was in the 2004 presidential race, he observed. This should tell us something about the relevance of any poll that shows an electorate with a significant split in favor for Democrats.
The message, not to put too fine a point on it, for Republicans is that if voters aren’t wildly enthusiastic about Mitt Romney, who cares? Ayres explained, “They are enthusiastic about getting rid of Obama. They can’t wait to go vote against him.”
The overwhelming opinion of all voters, Ayres pointed out, is that we are still in a recession (even if technically economists wouldn’t agree) and that we are on the “wrong track.” That bodes poorly for Obama’s chances to pick up undecided voters. (Resurgent’s survey concludes: “Conventional wisdom dictates that undecided voters do not split evenly, and the overwhelmingly negative political climate is a significant hurdle for President Obama in bucking this trend. Strong majorities of voters still believe the country is on the wrong track, and even more feel like the economy is stuck in a recession.”)
Ayres said that Obama is “right on the bubble” for an incumbent, with an approval rating below sure-fire incumbent winners with approval ratings in the mid-50s, such as Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, but better than those losers who were stuck in the mid-30s, such as Presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.
Given the state of the economy and the voters’ views on where we are heading, the Obama camp isn’t foolish to settle on a strategy of savaging Romney. Will it work? Ayres sees a very close race with “an electorate this closely balanced and polarized.” But he thinks Obama will find it hard to make the smears stick, just as Romney’s Republican opponents failed to do so in the primaries. That, Ayres said, is because when voters see him on the debate stage (and when they will see him at the convention) “he doesn’t come across as a right-wing nut case. He’s well informed.” He continued, “For the most part it is hard to show he’s incompetent or uncaring, because he’s not.” He added ruefully, “The truth sort of does come out.”
We shouldn’t completely discount the back and forth in the race, especially in a very close race where that matters “on the margins,” in Ayres’s view. But the economy, voter enthusiasm and demographics remain constant factors. As Ron Brownstein pointed out today, Obama is overwhelming losing the white vote, part of the coalition he won when he put together a winning formula after dispensing with Hillary Clinton in 2008. If Romney wins white voters by at least 60 percent (very possible) and the remainder of Obama’s coalition (minorities, single women, young voters) don’t show up in great numbers, Obama will lose.
Hence, we see Obama’s strategy to pander to his constituent groups (e.g. blocking the XL Pipeline for environmentalists, immigration relaxation for Hispanics, “war on women” for single females, etc.) and to both gin up his side and depress Romney’s by painting his Republican opponent as a monster. (That suggests, incidentally, that Obama has given up trying to appeal to working-class white voters who were critical to his win in 2008.)
The hitch is that by going over the top Obama disillusions parts of his base and only increases the fervor of Republicans dying to get rid of him. That, nevertheless, is all Obama has got, and he’s going to pursue that gambit no matter how badly he diminishes his own brand and no matter how inimical that approach is to governing should he actually pull out a win. Desperate times require desperate measures, you see.