With the unemployment rate in most swing states improving slowly, Mitt Romney’s campaign is focusing on another leading economic indicator to make its case for the presidency — the national debt.
There’s quite a bit of evidence that this could be a strong strategic move for the presumptive GOP nominee. Not only do voters take spending and the $15.9 trillion national debt seriously, they also strongly favor Romney over President Obama on the issue.
In a recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, voters ranked the deficit as the third most important issue, and 52 percent preferred Romney to handle it, while just 42 percent preferred Obama. In fact, Romney did twice as well on the deficit as he did on the overall economy, which is usually considered his wheelhouse.
A recent Pew Research poll confirmed voters’ concerns about the debt and Romney’s edge on the issue. According to Pew, 74 percent of voters rated the budget deficit as “very important” to their vote, including 76 percent of independents.
For those calling the deficit “very important,” Romney won 57 percent of the vote, while Obama won just 38 percent — a massive advantage for Romney. Meanwhile, among those who ranked the economy as the most important issue, Obama led by 4 percent.
Thus, even though the economy and deficit are intrinsically related to one another, voters view them as somewhat separate beasts. For example, a voter can prefer Obama on the economy and also prefer Romney on the deficit.
In fact, in the Pew poll, that’s exactly what happened, and it shows why it’s in Romney’s best interest to talk about the deficit. It’s proven to be very friendly territory for him — both in national and state-by-state polling.
Three recent NBC polls of swing states show just how politically lucrative the issue could be for Romney. In Iowa, Romney held an 18-point lead over Obama on the deficit, while his lead on the economy was a much smaller 5 points.
In Colorado, Romney led by 13 points on the deficit and only 3 points on the economy, and in Nevada, he led by 11 points on the deficit but tied Obama on the economy.
Nationally, it’s the same picture.
In a June Fox News poll, 51 percent of voters preferred Romney on cutting spending, while only 31 percent preferred Obama. That was, by far, Romney’s largest lead in any category.
More recently, a CBS/New York Times poll showed voters picking Romney on the deficit, 50 percent to Obama’s 36, and once again, that was his largest margin in any category polled.
Thus, a clear picture is emerging: Romney’s strongest issue is the deficit; not the economy or jobs, as often assumed.
This begs two important questions: Why is Romney racking up such huge margins on the issue, and what does it mean for the race?
First, Romney scores so well on the deficit because the overall financial picture keeps getting worse and voters seems to be blaming Obama for it.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that Obama’s 2013 budget would add $3.5 trillion to annual deficits through 2022. Last week, the Treasury Department reported that the budget deficit grew by $60 billion in June, and the CBO has projected a $1.3 trillion deficit for the current fiscal year. That would be the fourth straight year the budget deficit topped $1 trillion.
Regardless of who deserves the ultimate blame, it seems voters are assigning it to Obama.
In a June Fox News poll, only 37 percent approved of Obama’s handling of the deficit, while 56 percent disapproved. That was his worst performance on any core issue.
So Romney’s advantage on the deficit owes a lot to Obama’s deficit on the deficit.
But beyond hard polling numbers, there’s another good reason for Romney to home in on the deficit. Talking about it implicitly raises another concern voters often express about Obama — that he’s a tax-and-spend liberal. Indeed, an ABC/Washington Post survey this month showed that more voters consider his view of the role of government as a reason to oppose him rather than support him.
Thus far, Romney’s campaign has focused primarily on jobs and the overall economy, but an independent group supporting him, Crossroads GPS, has started making the argument that the deficit is inexorably linked to jobs and the unemployment rate.
“Tell President Obama [that] for real job growth, cut the debt,” the narrator says in the group’s most recent ad.
The link between the deficit and jobs shows up in another recent Crossroads ad, with the narrator claiming that Obama is adding $4 billion in debt every day and opining that real job growth can’t happen without cutting the debt.
It’s a win-win situation for Romney. If he and his allies can sell voters on the idea that the deficit and job growth are fundamentally linked, then his strength on the debt would, theoretically, bolster his strength on the overall economy.
In that case, you could see Romney’s double-digit lead on the deficit translate to an even bigger lead than that which he already sports on the economy, and that’s a pretty good place to be.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com