Carl Leubsdorf: Indicators suggest a close presidential election
Six months from Sunday, Americans will choose between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. All signs are that it will be the third very close election in the last four presidential contests.
National and state polls indicate Obama is a slight favorite. But some shrewd Democratic analysts are privately uncertain about his prospects, recognizing that the slowness of the economic recovery gives Romney a real chance.
Already, both sides are playing political one-upmanship and bombarding voters with a record level of ads and mailings, most of them negative. In the end, their view of the country's economic prospects and the candidates' performance in next fall's debates will likely prove decisive.
Here is how things stand now in some key areas:
The good news for Obama: he's rebounded from potentially fatal approval ratings in the low 40s and generally leads Romney. Polls show voters like him better.
The bad news: his approval level and his total in matchups are in the upper 40s, historically a dangerous area for incumbents. Surveys show voters think Romney would do better on the economy.
Some variance in polls stems from differing estimates of the electorate's makeup; minorities comprised 26 percent in 2008 but only 23 percent when the GOP scored big mid-term successes in 2010. The more Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans vote, the better for Obama.
These are often the best predictors, because ultimately they'll decide the election. Democrats start with a stronger base: 18 states plus the District of Columbia, with 242 of the necessary 270 electoral votes, have voted Democratic five straight times. (The Republican base has 23 states with 191 electoral votes, but 10 have occasionally voted Democratic.)
Republicans hope also to challenge Democrats in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, while the Democrats target Arizona and Missouri.
But the main battlegrounds are nine swing states that Obama carried: Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia , North Carolina, Florida and New Hampshire. Unsurprisingly, Obama formally kicks off his campaign Saturday in Ohio and Virginia.
Democrats start with an edge in the three Western battlegrounds, plus Ohio and New Hampshire, enough to win. The others are toss-ups.
Key constituencies in battleground states are Hispanics, who could determine Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona; white blue-collar workers in the industrial belt from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, and suburban independents.
Democratic hopes of benefiting from Romney's anti-immigration stance and rhetoric may be offset some by Obama's failure to enact legislation providing legal status for the 12 million illegal immigrants here.
Meanwhile, GOP hopes to benefit from unemployment and anti-Obama attitudes among union workers may be offset by Obama's success in helping to rescue the auto industry and anti-union actions by some Midwest GOP governors.
Obama counts again for strong support from younger voters, though their interest so far is down from 2008, possibly because the campaign has centered on the GOP race. Polls also show Obama retains strong support from women and is doing well with independents, two groups with whom Romney needs to gain.
As James Carville so memorably said in 1992 and Romney echoed last week, "it's the economy, stupid." The decisive issue may be whether voters think Obama's policies have improved the economy he inherited and, perhaps more importantly, which candidate they think will make things even better.
Republicans argue that Obama's big-spending, tax increase policies have made things worse by retarding the recovery. Obama contends the economy has grown steadily since early 2010. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said his 2009 stimulus created more than 3 million jobs and may have prevented a second recession in 2010.
Polls indicate voters favor Romney on the economy, but give Obama high marks on personal characteristics, caring for average voters and foreign policy.
Ultimately, voters will pick a person to lead the country. The two candidates have widely different policy prescriptions and are personally very different. A re-elected Obama would try to pursue the same balanced economic prescriptions, including higher taxes for the wealthy, which the GOP has so far blocked. Romney would try to enact the House GOP's economic program, which features tax cuts and more domestic cuts that Obama has blocked.
Whether either could break Washington's gridlock is unclear. But one will get the voters' mandate in six months to do so.