- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2012


The Republicans’ presidential primary slugfest has all of our attention right now, but the general election race is really the more interesting story.

The toxic contest between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for their party’s nomination probably still has a long way to go before it is over, but the head-to-head race to deny Barack Obama a second term is already well under way.

Surprisingly consistent voter preferences have been pouring in for months now, and the latest returns show the president isn’t doing so hot - at least not against one of the Republican candidates.

These preferences are the polling numbers in the head-to-head matchups between Mr. Obama and the Republican contenders, and what they show will most likely determine who the GOP’s standard-bearer will be in the fall.

Last week, Gallup surveyed registered voters in 12 key swing states that will probably decide who wins in November. That poll showed voters “almost evenly split between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.”

These swing states were Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Actually, Mr. Romney beats Mr. Obama in these swing states by 48 percent to 47 percent, a statistical tie, but still edging out the president by a point.

Among registered voters nationally, Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama are in a dead heat, 48 percent to 48 percent.

But Mr. Romney’s stronger showing in the swing states trumps the national numbers because these states are among the major electoral prizes that will pick the winner.

Mr. Gingrich, the weakest among Mr. Romney’s three rivals in the polling matchups, does poorly against Mr. Obama in the swing states, trailing the president by 14 points, 54 percent to 40 percent, and trailing 12 points nationally.

Rep. Ron Paul loses to Mr. Obama by 43 percent to 50 percent, while former Sen. Rick Santorum does a teeny bit better, losing by 44 percent to 51 percent.

Gallup conducted the same head-to-head polls in these swing states in October, late November to early December, and this last one Jan. 24 to 28.

Despite the ups and downs of the GOP primary battle throughout this four-month period, “Obama and Romney have been closely matched in each of the three swing-states polls.” They’ve “also been statistically tied in each of five polls conducted among national registered voters dating back to August,” Gallup said.

“Thus, even as the Republicans’ support for various candidates has fluctuated substantially, the preferences of all registered voters for Obama or Romney nationally and in key swing states have remained quite stable,” the polling firm said.

As for Mr. Gingrich’s earlier lead over Mr. Romney among all Republican voters, Gallup’s surveys now show the former Georgia congressman’s strength in both swing states and nationally “has deteriorated” since late November and early December.

Gallup said Monday that its “daily tracking of national Republican preferences for their party’s nominee over the weekend shows Gingrich’s lead over Romney slipping, with the two nearly back to a tie.”

What all of this shows is that Mr. Obama remains a weak incumbent who hasn’t been able to break out of bleak job approval polls that are stuck in the mid-40s.

The reason is the economy remains tepid. It grew by an anemic 2.8 percent in the fourth quarter, while the national unemployment rate is stuck in the 9 percent range, and forecasters say that is unlikely to improve for the rest of this year.

Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address last week didn’t do much to change the economic scores of his presidency. It was a pasty stew of higher spending for more public works projects, taxes on investments and small businesses, and billions of dollars in special-interest expenditures aimed at the voters he needs to win a second term.

As he enters the fourth year of his presidency, Mr. Obama clings to a rise in last month’s jobs numbers he says is proof the economy is improving.

But the unemployment rate fell in December in large measure because so many discouraged workers stopped looking for a job and dropped out of the workforce. Even some of Mr. Obama’s biggest defenders are not impressed by the 200,000 jobs number, calling it a statistical anomaly and predicting joblessness will likely rise again this year in the midst of the election.

“I expect the unemployment rate to edge upwards in the next few months. … My bet is that we are still over 8.0 percent next Dec.,” economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote in a Q-and-A with The Washington Post last month.

“I think it is mostly a statistical fluke,” Mr. Baker said of the latest unemployment rate.

So does the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which projected Tuesday that the jobless rate would climb to 8.9 percent by the end of this year and rise to 9.2 percent in 2013.

The Obama economy grew at a snail’s pace rate of 1.7 percent last year, a feeble rate that Post economics writer Peter Whoriskey described as a “dismal result after many forecasts of robust growth made at the beginning of the year.”

The 2.8 percent growth rate - below much more bullish forecasts - was further proof of the continuing economic impotence of the administration’s policies.

“To put that in perspective, over the last 60 years, the average historical growth rate for the U.S. economy has been about 3.2 percent,” Mr. Whoriskey wrote.

No one expects this economy to take off this year or even next under Mr. Obama’s direction. The Federal Reserve Board said as much last week.

Polls now showing the president tied with Mr. Romney may be the high point in Mr. Obama’s last year in office.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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