Fagen: Presidential Race Is Still Anyone's

President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney
Jewel Samad | AFP | Getty Images
President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll portends an epic class-warfare fight. President Obama is attempting to portray himself as the defender of the middle class while also painting Mitt Romney as a wealthy, out-of-touch, flip-flopper. The president’s 6-point advantage on the ballot score has to hearten even the most skeptical Obama supporter.

But a closer look at historical polling data combined with some key economic measures suggests that neither the president nor Mr. Romney begin the general election in a strong position. These mixed signals mean the president is unlikely to ever break away and open up a commanding lead.

On the one hand, the president’s job approval rating is at 49 percent. His ballot score is also at 49 percent. He’s likable, and that’s worth a lot. He’s in pretty good condition, given the economic slump the U.S. has been in since he took office.

On the other hand, consumer confidence is in the tank compared to previous incumbents. Even though we’ve seen consumer confidence rebound significantly over the past twelve months, it’s stalled on account of rising gas prices. You can see from the chart below that Mr. Obama is in the same shape as Jimmy Carter was when it was clear that the latter had fended off his primary challenge from Ted Kennedy.

Also troubling for the president is the fact that only 24 percent of voters are satisfied with the direction of the country. Like consumer confidence, this number has risen over the last year, but has recently leveled off. No president has been re-elected when Gallup’s historical measure is this low. Unemployment is higher today than it was for any other incumbent at this stage of the race.

Key Indicators - Start of General Campaign

Challenger Election
Consumer Confidence
Prez Job Approval
2012 70.2 49%/46% 24%/74% 8.20% 2.65%
2004 88.5 49%/48% 39%/60% 5.70% 1.74%
1996 98.4 54%/37% 41%/56% 5.50% 2.84%
1992 72.6 38%/55% 14%/84% 7.80% 3.09%
1984 100.4 52%/37% 50%/46% 7.50% 4.20%
1980 70.8 41%/49% NA 7.70% 12.87%
1976 94.6 NA NA 7.80% 5.71%
1972 95.1 48%/40% NA 5.70% 3.23%
Source: NBC News/Wall Street Journal; Gallup; ABC/Washington Post; CBS/New York Times Polling.

Obama has some troubling economic data to contend with, but Mitt Romney starts the general election campaign trailing President Obama on a number of key attributes, including “being easy-going and likable,” and “caring about average people.”

The slice of the electorate that makes up their minds right before Election Day typically makes a gut-check decision on which candidate is more likable, more trustworthy, and which one they think best understands them. Romney simply has to improve on these measures.

But Romney leads by 6 points on the number one issue for most voters, the economy. Other recent polls have shown that voters have more confidence in Mitt Romney’s ability to create jobs. No one doubts that the economy will be the central issue in the fall campaign.

Of concern for Romney is his net negative favorable rating (33 percent favorable/36 percent unfavorable). And, even though he’s seen his favorable rating jump 5 points since March, Romney is the only challenger to ever start the general election upside-down. There’s been significant reporting on this point, but Romney’s “favorability” problem has been overstated.

A look back to 1980 shows Ronald Reagan with only a 41 percent favorable rating at the time he secured the GOP nomination in April, hardly a strong number. Reagan went on to win, while John Kerry, who had a 53 percent favorable rating at the time he secured his party’s nomination, lost. President Clinton also came out of a bruising primary in 1992, saw his favorability upside-down at one point, but went on to rehabilitate his image and win.

Favorable/Unfavorable Ratings - Start of General Campaign

Challenger Election
End of Primary
Fav / Unfav / No Op
Fav / Unfav / No Op
2012 April Obama 48%/39% Romney 33%/36%
2004 March Bush 57%/41%/2% Kerry 53%/36%/8%
1996 March Clinton 56%/38%/5% Dole 49%/36%/14%
1992 June Bush 52%/43%/5% Clinton 39%/31%/30%
1984 July Reagan 54%/38%/8% Mondale 48%/30%/23%
1980 August Carter 43%/48% Reagan 41%/34%
Source: NBC News/Wall Street Journal; Gallup; ABC/Washington Post; CBS/New York Times Polling.

Romney is solidifying his base. Hilary Rosen’s flat-footed attack on Ann Romney’s decision to stay at home and raise her children was helpful because it introduced her and the Romney family to the country. They’re a great asset for Mitt and reflect well on him. As people get to know Mitt Romney’s story, his numbers will rise.

At the end of the day, the polls will go up and down, but economies don’t work that way. If the key measures of the economy — consumer confidence, unemployment and satisfaction — only improve modestly or remain flat, we’ll be in uncharted political territory.

Sara Taylor Fagen is a partner at DDC Advocacy and a former Political Director for President George W. Bush. She is also a CNBC contributor.