WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is ahead of Mitt Romney with seven weeks to go. But the political environment in 2012 is unlike any in years, making the election’s outcome impossible to predict.
The worst economic downturn in 80 years continues to stagger and worry a middle class unaccustomed to such a dramatic loss of wealth, a blow that won’t stop inflicting pain.
How still-uncertain voters ultimately choose a candidate could be the key to who wins the Nov. 6 election.
The old maxims may not work this year. An incumbent president is saddled with a lackluster economy, but is leading in the polls. The challenger heads a unified, motivated party and picked a running mate popular with the conservative Republican base. But the ticket has struggled to gain momentum.
So far in this catch-your-breath period between the conventions and the first debate Oct. 3, the advantage goes to Obama, who is still enjoying what the Gallup poll termed a “modest bump” from last week’s Democratic convention.
On the Republican side, conservatives were frustrated with Romney’s inability to gain on Obama. But since Wednesday, they’ve been re-energized by the Republican presidential candidate’s highly unusual step of slamming the Obama administration’s foreign policy as the Libya and Egypt crises unfolded.
But neither candidate is surging, and neither is expected to in the days ahead.
“Virtually everybody in America knows what they think of President Obama, and they know who they’re for and against,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The first October debate is a big, maybe decisive, event. So are candidate reactions to unforeseen events like the Libya-Egypt crisis. And the election still is likely to hinge on a sliver of undecided and still persuadable voters in 10 battleground states.
Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research in Jacksonville, Fla., compared the state of the race to one’s blood pressure. It goes up and down, for reasons sometimes logical, sometimes not, but “no one freaks out until the beeping starts,” he said, and that hasn’t happened.
Current trends are in Obama’s favor. Gallup found that he got a 3 percentage point boost after his convention, in line with the 5-point historic average. Romney’s convention gave him no bounce, and outside conservative circles, he was derided for blasting Obama on Libya and Egypt. Obama has also pulled ahead in Gallup’s daily polls, with a 6-point lead in the Monday-Wednesday poll.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, first elected to represent that battleground state in the U.S. Senate in 1984, warned that Obama has not clinched anything yet.
“It’s not just jobs,” he said. “We have low unemployment. And it’s not farms, because Obama has been good for agriculture. It has to do with the loss of wealth by the middle class, and that’s not unique to Iowa.”
Iowa, like swing states such as Ohio, Wisconsin and others, is not a wealthy state, and the middle class feels unusually vulnerable.
“The value of housing eroded, and people were counting on that for long-term security,” Harkin said.
It’s been decades since people faced such a frightening, unpredictable economic crisis, and those who normally pay little attention to politics are being unusually careful about whom they trust to run the government.
Since Obama and Romney offer distinct plans for healing the economy, views supporters heartily endorse, the election’s outcome hinges on two types of voters: undecideds and persuadables.
Undecideds tend to pay less attention to the campaigns and tend not to like either candidate. A Pew Research Center survey this summer found that “neither candidate is particularly appealing to these undecided voters.”
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School poll, said such voters are often economically conservative but socially liberal. Younger voters, in particular, seek a leaner government, as Romney promotes, but like Obama’s support of gay rights, abortion rights and other such issues.
“Because they’re conflicted, it’s difficult for them to find a candidate who fits,” Franklin said.
Persuadables, meanwhile, represent as much as 10 percent of the voters, analysts suggested
These are the ticket-splitters, or those who shift party allegiances effortlessly and often vote largely on a candidate’s likeability or a single issue.
In the swing state of Wisconsin, voters elected a Democratic governor and U.S. senator by wide margins in 2006 and backed Obama two years later by 14 percentage points. But in 2010, voters chose a conservative Republican governor and U.S. senator, and this year, rejected a bid to recall the governor.
These volatile voters are waiting to see how candidates perform over the next seven weeks.
“Why commit now?” asked Coker.
The presidential candidates will debate three times next month, with the final clash coming Oct. 22, 15 days before the election. The vice presidential candidates face off Oct. 11.
Both Obama and Romney are vulnerable. Obama’s job approval number was stuck in the mid-40s last month, and has inched up to about 50 percent this week, numbers that suggest a big bloc of voters remains unhappy with his stewardship of the economy.
Obama is being tested constantly. The day after his acceptance speech at the convention, the Labor Department issued its monthly unemployment report, loaded with fresh data on the economic recovery’s sluggish progress. This week’s eruption in Libya and Egypt allowed him to look presidential but also triggered fresh analyses of his foreign policy.
Romney has a different task. As the challenger, he can often do little but react to events, and the mainstream political world largely saw him as out of line when he kept firing away at Obama’s policies while the Libya-Egypt crisis erupted.
John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, saw Romney heading down a dangerous road.
With the election likely to rest with a relative handful of voters in a handful of states, “there’s a tendency to adopt a micro-strategy,” Geer said, one where Republicans cater to subgroups like conservative hawks who might need a push to turn out.
Instead, he said Romney “needs to develop a national strategy.”
The Romney camp insists it’s doing that. Thursday, his allies quickly began emphasizing the economy again, and talking about what they say is Obama’s inability to manage it.
“People keep expressing disapproval of the president,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. “They’re fired up.”
Still, for all the polling and precision, Harkin said, close elections often come down to voters’ answers to two questions: “Do I like you?” he said. “And will you fight for me?”