Obama and the polls: Half full or half empty?

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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Virtually every poll in the last two weeks — Gallup, Democracy Corps, USA Today, Rasmussen, New York Times/CBS — shows that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are in a dead heat nationally as well as in the nine battleground states.

For Obama, is this glass half-full or half-empty?

Certainly the economic news and poll ratings of Obama’s handling of the economy suggest that his holding his own versus Romney right now is pretty good. After all, unemployment is still over 8 percent and voters rating the economy negatively exceed those who rate it positively by a whopping 35 percent margin, according to the recent Democracy Corps poll. The key wrong-track-right-track question is now 59 percent to 33 percent wrong track. You’d have to ask Romney the question: If you are not ahead of Obama given these numbers, how can you expect to defeat him in November?

But there is also a lot of bad news in these polls about Mitt Romney, which paradoxically could mean even worse news for Obama.

For example, on the key issue of likability — which I believe in most elections is more important than all — Tuesday’s Gallup poll reported that Obama is more likable than Romney by a 2-to-1 margin, 60 percent to 31. On a “feel warm”/“feel cold” scale in the American Corps poll, Obama was plus-18 percent on Romney.

Romney has shown the ability to fix his problems on issues — he simply changes his positions. But can he change his poor likability numbers?

We have seen months and months of politically tone-deaf gaffes (“I’ll bet you $10,000,” “I like firing people” or — sorry, can’t resist — “Seamus liked it up there on the car roof,” even though the dog’s bowels had turned to water, leading Romney to hose down the car and Seamus and put him back on top for the rest of the 12-hour trip).

His basic personality — he is perceived as being cold and lacking authenticity — might not be fixable.

Moreover, Romney also consistently shows significant deficits versus Obama among women (especially working women) and Hispanic voters (running behind Obama in most polls by 2-to-1).

But to state the paradox again: Bad news for Romney can be interpreted as worse news for Obama — if he is not running ahead of Romney, given all his personality and perception weaknesses as a presidential candidate, that shows a fundamental problem that seriously threatens Obama’s success in November.

And what is it? I think it comes down to the core message of his campaign thus far — the liberal populist message that appeals to the liberal base (including me) but doesn’t seem to please the crucial centrist independent bloc, the classic “swing” voters who will ultimately determine the outcome of the presidential election.

This week’s Politico/George Washington University poll shows Romney with a 10 percent lead among independents. According to the Democracy Corps, those voters who define themselves as independents — including independents who say they lean Democratic or lean Republican — comprise as much as 30 percent of the electorate.

And what will move these voters? According to the Democracy Corps poll, voters favor “a plan to dramatically reduce the deficit over the next five years” by a margin of more than 3 to 1 — 59 percent to 19. We know from past history that these are the Ross Perot/Bill Clinton swing voters who are fiscally conservative and socially moderate. They are up for grabs in 2012.

A midcourse correction in message strategy appears to be in order for Obama and his campaign to consider. The president can pre-empt the center and turn these independent voters in his direction by endorsing the across-the-board approach of Simpson-Bowles. He can do so dramatically in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, if not before. And he can challenge Romney to do the same.

This is a strategy aimed at persuading the persuadables — and, if the economic news remains as mediocre on Nov. 6 as it is today, it could be Obama’s best and perhaps only chance of pushing that glass above half-full and winning in November.

Lanny Davis, a Washington D.C. attorney specializing in legal crisis management, served as Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton in 1996-98 and served as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Board in 2006-07. He currently serves as Special Counsel to Dilworth Paxson. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Crisis Tales – Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life,” to be published by Simon & Schuster.