Yes, Obama Is Winning — For Now

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Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Today's report that the economy added 227,000 jobs last month, and far more than expected the previous two months,  seems as good an occasion as any to take stock of President Obama’s electoral standing.

Obama has clearly improved his position. In the TPM, Real Clear Politics and Pollster.com measurements, all of which take in a broad array of sources, Obama’s net job approval rating has improved by around ten points since early fall. TPM has Obama’s disapproval running a couple points ahead of approval, RCP has just the opposite, and Pollster.com has them even. (The differences revolve around how you weight different polls and how quickly you adjust them to changes.)

Why has Obama improved his standing? Pretty much everything has moved his way all at once. The recovery, which stalled last year, is picking up speed, and perceptions of the economy are improving along with it. The Republican candidates have all hurtled rightward and lost popularity in the center. Obama has managed to establish a contrast against the wildly unpopular Republican House rather than allow himself to be sucked down into its dysfunction.

Obama’s rise since the fall first attracted little attention, then prompted waves of Republican panic. (George Will wrote a widely-discussed column urging his party to leave Mitt Romney for dead and concentrate on holding Congress. Politico quoted several GOP fundraisers embracing Will’s advice.)

Since then, a passel of conservatives have emerged to urge their party to cheer up. Former Bush aides William McGurn, writing in the Wall Street Journal and Michael Gerson, in the Washington Post, Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru and Washington Examiner columnist Paul Bedard have all made the case in recent days that Obama is weaker than we think. You have a mix of hilarious appeals to Republican Party theology (McGurn follows the hoary technique of drawing completely inapt comparisons to the sainted Ronald Reagan, whose life provides the template for understanding all subsequent events forever and inspiration to all conservatives facing a dark night of the soul) to obvious cherry-picking (Bedard compares Obama to Jimmy Carter, who was, at this moment in his presidency, enjoying a transient rally-around-the-flag bump from the Iranian hostage crisis that would soon corrode his popularity).

Conservatives making the sunny-side-up argument have tended recently to rely solely on the Gallup poll in measuring Obama. Why is that? Because Gallup, for whatever reason, has tended to measure Obama lower than other polls this cycle. Gallup tends to be a handy measuring device because it's old, which allows for easy historical comparisons. But, for whatever reason, its results have strayed from the pack. Four years ago, Rasmussen was the go-to poll for conservative Pollyanna let's-pretend-there's-only-one-poll analysis. This year Gallup has filled that role.

It’s hard to say why this is. It certainly doesn’t mean Gallup is wrong. But the best way to draw an accurate picture of a race is to consider all the polling, or at least all the good polling. Picking out the source that gives you the best number is a handy way to slip one past your audience, but it’s not a good way to draw an accurate picture. Yet a huge proportion of the punditry making the case for being bearish on Obama — some of it being done by straight news reporters, not just conservative pundits — relies on the simple device of citing only Gallup and ignoring its outlier status.

Ponnuru argues, “The conventional wisdom has moved substantially in the president’s favor in recent weeks, but the underlying circumstances of the election have not.” Well, maybe circumstances haven’t changed much in the last few weeks, but they’ve changed a great deal over the last few months. Last fall, Obama’s approval rating was underwater by about ten points, the economy was stalling out, and he faced the prospect of a relatively popular opponent. Now his approval rating is even, the economy may be approaching escape velocity from the 2008 crisis, and his competition has eaten itself alive.

Right now, Obama is popular enough, and Romney unpopular enough — Americans truly detest Romney — that it seems safe to say that he is winning. What’s more, the direction of the economy seems likely to improve his standing further still. Something would have to change for Obama to lose.

But — and it’s a huge but — there is plenty of time for things to change. This remains a divided country, and the floor beneath both parties is high enough that a Johnson 1964 type blowout remains almost inconceivable. The divided nature of the electorate means that the race is always going to be within the range that a major event could flip the standings. And there’s enough time until the election that any number of events could come along to change it. But as boring as it can be to defend conventional wisdom, the conventional wisdom has changed because the facts have changed. Obama was positioned to lose his reelection last summer. At the moment, he isn’t.