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From a referendum to a choice

The natural state of an election involving an incumbent, particularly a presidential election, is to be a referendum on that incumbent. While the economy is improving, we can stipulate that President Obama will do less well if voters simply cast an up-or-down vote on the last four years. Thus, the central strategic imperative facing the president’s campaign is to transform the race from a referendum into a choice between the president and his Republican opponent, or even into a referendum on that opponent.

It’s much easier said than done, though there are precedents. It’s what we helped do in reelection battles for Govs. Jennifer Granholm (D-Mich.) and Pat Quinn (D-Ill.), as well as for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Of course, others accomplished the same feat. Nixon succeeded with George McGovern (though he needn’t have), as did President Clinton with Bob Dole.

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Evidence is beginning to accumulate suggesting President Obama, too, is enjoying exactly that kind of success — moving away from a referendum and toward a choice. It’s still quite early, and any competent analyst will quickly remind you that many a poll has changed between February and November. Projecting the present into the future and feeling confident about the ultimate outcome based on today’s polls would be silly. However, it would be equally foolish to examine the totality of recent polling and conclude it means nothing at all. In fact, it does reflect a changing dynamic — though one that could change yet again.

Evidence comes in part from the horse-race numbers nationally and in key states. In August last year, the ABC/Washington Post poll gave Mitt Romney a 4-point lead over the president. In the same poll this month it’s President Obama who leads — by 6. In November, Fox News reported a 2-point margin for Romney. Today, it’s Obama by 5. Rasmussen, usually unfriendly to Democrats, was true to form in December when it gave Romney a 6-point edge. But just a few days ago it was Obama by 7. 

In fairness, there is some cherry-picking here — a number of polls have shown the president ahead of Romney at every point in time. But comparing same poll to same poll reveals some shifts, as does the overall trend.

There are changes in key states as well. In November, Romney led in Florida by 3 points, according to Rasmussen. Now it’s Obama by 3. In September, Romney was ahead by 2 points in Virginia, according to Quinnipiac. Now they report a 4-point Obama advantage. And there’s Missouri, where Romney led the president by 6 points in November in PPP’s polling, but which is now tied.

Why the changed circumstances? It is due in part to the president’s own improved standing. But since last October his approval rating has risen a modest 3 to 4 points. In the same period, Mitt Romney’s unfavorable ratings shot up 10 points.

So as Mitt Romney has become an increasingly unpalatable figure, the referendum recedes in voters’ consciousness while the choice begins to emerge more clearly — and it’s a choice that benefits the president. That’s why he has risen vis-à-vis Romney despite only small improvements in his own image.

This dynamic also explains why some polls show Rick Santorum performing more strongly against Obama than does Romney. No one, with the possible exceptions of Sen. and Mrs. Santorum, believe he would be a stronger candidate than Romney. But voters know little about him, so an Obama-Santorum matchup remains a bit more of a referendum at this stage. As Santorum’s frightening views become more widely known than his sweater-vests, he too will find it difficult to keep voters fixed on a referendum.

Keeping the focus on President Obama alone and making the race a referendum would have required Republicans to have produced a field encumbered by far fewer flaws.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.