By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Bruce Stokes is the director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center election polling results can be found here. The views expressed are his own.
“The economy, stupid!”, quipped Democratic political consultant James Carville in his now iconic description of the fundamental issue of the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign. In 2012, political analysts echoed that phrase in framing the race for the White House between the incumbent President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But as the candidates head into a series of pivotal debates starting tonight, is it really the economy that will determine the election’s outcome?
Recent polling data from the Pew Research Center and others confirms that the economy is the principal concern of the American public as they prepare to vote. And increasingly, voters are not so sure which candidate would do the best job on economic issues. But Obama’s recent rise in the polls suggests that Americans’ voting preference is based on a range of issues, not just the economy. And the public’s views of the personality traits of the two candidates may be every bit as important as the issues in choosing between Obama and Romney.
With the upcoming debates, expected massive expenditures by both candidates on television advertising and uncertain national jobs numbers to be released before election day, Romney still has a chance to make the sale to the American people. Persuadable voters still strongly favor his future stewardship of the economy.
However, roughly a month before election day, the mood of the American voter suggests “it’s not just the economy, stupid!”
By the last week of September, president Obama had opened up a lead in nearly all the major presidential public opinion surveys. Pew had Obama ahead by nine percentage points among registered voters. The New York Times/CBS news and the Wall Street Journal/NBC news had him up by six, the Washington Post/ABC news survey had him up by five points, and Gallup had him up by four.
Voters have long told pollsters that the economy is the most important issue facing the country. In key swing states, such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, this focus on the economy over any other particular issue is by a margin of more than two-to-one, according to polls by the New York Times, CBS News and Quinnipiac University. And, as recently as July and August, in swing states such as Colorado and Wisconsin, people said they thought Romney would do a better job handling the country’s economic challenges. Now, both nationally and in most of these battleground states, Romney’s advantage on the economy has either narrowed or disappeared.
Why? One explanation may be that people, especially Democrats, are feeling better about the economy. Consumer confidence rose nine percentage points in September, according to the Conference Board.
But the Obama poll numbers may also reflect the totality of trust in him in dealing with a range of issues. By 53 percent to 38 percent voters say they believe Obama would do the best job in making wise foreign policy decisions. By 51 percent to 38 percent they think the president would do a better job dealing with Medicare, the U.S. health insurance program for the elderly.
The Obama lead may have even more to do with the public’s sense of the two candidates’ personalities. By nearly three-to-one, people think Obama connects better with ordinary Americans. By 51 percent to 37 percent they believe he shows good judgment in a crisis. And by 50 percent to 40 percent that he shares their values.
Nevertheless, the economy could still prove decisive on election day. The latest Pew Research survey found 22 percent of voters to be persuadable: 7 percent who say they have not made up their minds yet and another 15 percent who either say they are thinking of voting for Obama but could vote for Romney, or are likely to vote for Romney but may vote for Obama.
People in this group still strongly believe that Romney would do the best job both in improving the country’s employment situation (by 44 percent to 27 percent) and in reducing the federal budget deficit (by 46 percent to 19 percent). So Romney’s final economic message may yet hold great appeal for these swing voters.
At the same time, however, these same persuadable voters also give Obama an even greater advantage on some personality traits: by about four-to-one, they think Obama more than Romney connects with ordinary Americans. They also say Obama shows better judgment in a crisis, is a stronger leader and more consistent in his positions.
So, in an American presidential election that pundits long believed would only be about the economy and in which the jobless rate and the rising government deficit would make Obama vulnerable, a month before the election the president may be in a position to be reelected, in spite of the nation’s economic troubles. This is, in part, because of voters’ reservations about Mitt Romney, who has the lowest favorable rating of any presidential candidate in Pew Research September surveys going back to 1988.
The American public appears to be telling pollsters it is not just the economy, stupid. It is also foreign policy, health care and simply whether the candidate connects well with ordinary Americans.