Lawrence R. Jacobs is a professor in the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
As Rick Santorum's withdrawal creates a glide path for Mitt Romney to the Republican presidential nomination, President Obama begins the seven month run-up to the November election at what may be the height of his strength.
Obama is benefiting from a brutal GOP nomination battle that drove Romney's "unfavorable" ratings to 50 percent — the highest level in decades for a candidate emerging from a competitive nomination battle. No wonder. Months of punishing slams from Newt Gingrich, Santorum, and others have taken a toll.
Beyond the savage attacks, Romney's standing in the general election has been hurt by a three-month debate among GOP candidates that was pitched to the caucus goers and primary voters who decide the nomination — Christian evangelicals and the very conservative. Staking out positions against immigration, contraception and Planned Parenthood along with favoring sharp cuts in entitlements and domestic spending was necessary to secure the nomination, but it places Romney to the right of voters who will decide the general election — requiring (as an adviser conceded) Etch-A-Sketching.
Harsh public criticism of Romney along with his attacks on his rivals has drained the GOP of the enthusiasm that was a powerful advantage during the 2010 elections. The fire in the belly of rank and file Republicans is now comparable to that of their Democratic counterparts.
As Romney and the GOP presidential field carved each other up and dispirited their followers in the fall and winter, Obama started to recover. The economy stabilized and started to expand modestly.
Beginning in the fall, Obama began to energetically frame the November elections as posing a sharp choice — as he declared in his December 2011 speech in Osawatomie, Kan. — between his policies to give a "fair shot" to working people and the Republican "philosophy [that] we are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves." Framing the election as a "make or break moment for the middle class," he stirred liberals and Democrats and attempted to isolate the GOP in the eyes of independent voters as proponents of radical change and as a risky choice to replace the president.
With employment expanding along with economic activity, Obama's approval rating rose from about 40 percent to the mid-40s and the disapproval of his handling of the economy fell from 62 percent last summer to just above 50 percent, according to the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll. Obama's 8 point advantage in the same survey reverses Romney's 4 point lead in September.
Obama's new strength was boosted by increased support among key segments of the electorate — women and independents. Gallup's poll of swing states found that Romney's lead of 8 points among independents in the fall gave way to Obama's 10 point lead in April, as independent women flipped from favoring the Republican by 5 points to backing the president by 14 points. This is a potentially significant development, challenging pundits to coin a new label to replace "soccer moms" (1990s), "security moms" (2004), or "hockey moms" (2008). (My entry is "recession moms.")
Here is the key question: Will the confluence of Obama's recent resurgence and Romney's weakness persist or recede? There are several reasons to suspect that we may look back at this moment as Obama's high water mark.
The most significant development in coming months will likely be on the economic front, where many analysts project slower rates of job creation and economic expansion — falling from 3 percent GDP growth in the fourth quarter to 2.5 percent or perhaps closer to 2 percent. A slower recovery would supply Romney with ample ammunition among the three-quarters of Americans who report that the country is still in a recession and the nearly two-thirds reporting that the country is on the wrong track.
If the economy staggers, the presidential race will tighten up. A Romney win in November remains more plausible than many Democrats and some commentators appreciate at the moment.