Opinion polls have value — and limits. The value in the new CBS News/New York Times poll isn’t the headline result showing Mitt Romney leading Barack Obama 46-43. The top-line, national result in a poll conducted almost six months before Election Day is pretty worthless.
But there is value in some of the underlying data, and what they tell us about the direction the election may be taking. There’s some good and bad for each candidate.
First, a quick note about why these data mean anything. Because this poll is taken regularly, with consistency in the wording of questions over time, we can get a decent idea of trend lines. Even better, the people surveyed last Friday to Sunday (May 11-13) are the very same people surveyed last month, giving us an idea of how particular people’s opinions are shifting. However, not all of the people from the April poll chose to participate in May; again, there are limits.
Now to the data. We’ll start with the good for Obama because, frankly, it won’t take that long.
One good thing for Obama is that Romney’s favorability ratings got worse, to a net margin of minus-7 from minus-5 a month earlier. Obama’s own rating improved to even, from a net minus-3. On the other hand, those changes didn’t prevent Romney from taking that 3-point overall lead (the two were tied 46-46 in April).
Maybe the best thing the Obama campaign can take from this poll is that people’s views of the economy are improving. In April, the improving/worsening split was 33-28. This month it was 36-24, the most positive view in the CBS/NYT poll since April 2010. Given that the economy looms large with this group — 62 percent called it the most important issue for the election — that seems like good news for Obama.
Unfortunately for him, that improvement didn’t show up in the headline result. What gives?
We don’t know exactly, because the pollsters didn’t ask about which candidate voters thought would be best for the economy. But we do know that 67 percent, down only slightly from April, still rate the economy as bad. Until that number changes in Obama’s favor, the economy is likely to weigh on his ratings.
The pollsters didn’t ask much specifically about the economy, but they asked a lot about last week’s big news story: Obama’s new support for same-sex marriage. And here the numbers are not good for Obama: Voters say they’re less likely to support Obama because of his position by a net margin of 9 percentage points, while they say Romney’s opposite position makes them more likely to support him by a net 6 points. Among independents, it was minus-8 for Obama and dead even for Romney. Obama might do well to stick with his professed plan not to make much of the issue, in the hopes that not many people’s votes will turn on it: Just 7 percent said it was the most important issue to them, and Democrats (8 percent), Republicans and independents (6 percent each) were similarly likely to voice that opinion.
There are two trends, however, that are notably in Romney’s favor.
First, despite the Democratic rhetoric about the GOP’s “war on women,” Romney won a 2-point edge among women. That in itself wouldn’t be such a big deal, but Romney trailed among women by 6 points last month. That is a big swing within a group that historically sides with Democrats.
Second, conservatives are consolidating behind Romney after the bitter primary season. Romney’s lead over Obama among self-described conservatives grew by 11 percentage points between April and May and now stands at 75-8. That leaves 17 percent still undecided, meaning Romney may have a significant amount of ground yet to gain with his own base. (At 89-10, Obama’s lead among liberals is probably about as good as it’s going to get.) Romney also cut Obama’s lead with self-described moderates nearly in half, from 20 points in April to 11 points in May.
Again, Election Day is nearly six months away, and a lot stands to change between now and then. But in a tight race — Obama leads the Real Clear Politics average, which excludes this CBS/NYT poll, by just 2.2 points — these trends beneath the headlines will give us a good idea of what’s working, and who the campaigns may try to woo next.
– By Kyle Wingfield