Tipping Point?

Charlie Cook

Unless the polling over the last few days in Florida is completely wrong, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has turned back former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s second resurgence. Republican officeholders can now step back off the ledge. When they heard Democratic pollster Peter Hart telling NBC News that a Gingrich nomination might trigger another 1964 Goldwater debacle, it was enough to send many to the bar at the Capitol Hill Club. But a larger question is now rising: Have the 2012 elections reached a tipping point?

For the first nine months of last year, metrics suggested President Obama would be facing a tough battle for reelection. The U.S. economy, measured by gross domestic product, grew at just 0.4 percent for the first quarter of 2011, 1.3 percent in the second, and 1.8 percent for the third. Economic growth this sluggish could do little to push unemployment below the horrific 9 percent level for the first nine months of the year. Weak consumer-confidence numbers slumped even further over the course of the first three quarters of the year, particularly after the congressional debt-ceiling debacle.

By October, just 17 percent of Americans told NBC News/Wall Street Journal pollsters that the country was headed in the right direction. A whopping 74 percent said the country was off on the wrong track. These were not the kind of poll numbers that the president’s campaign strategists wanted to see.

The state of the economy and consumer confidence intersect with a president’s job-approval rating. Not unexpectedly, Obama’s numbers were too low for an incumbent president to have a good shot at reelection. The best single polling indicator for an incumbent president seeking reelection is the Gallup job-approval rating leading up to Election Day. Every post-World War II president with a Gallup job-approval rating of 50 percent or higher going into Election Day won. Each one with an approval rating of 47 percent or lower lost.

Obama’s approval rating only reached the tipping point in two months last year: 49 percent for January and 50 percent in May (the president announced Osama bin Laden’s killing on May 1). From July through December, his monthly Gallup approval rating ranged from 41 to 44 percent, hardly a level likely to get a president reelected.

There are growing signs that some of these factors might be changing, which warrants watching them very closely. The economy grew at a rate of 2.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011. Hardly a blistering pace, but far better than the GDP growth rate had been. The national unemployment rate has now dropped for four months in a row. While still unacceptably high at 8.5 percent, it’s moving in a direction not seen in a while.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index reported last week that “the increase in confidence over the past five months has been substantial, with the sentiment index rising by one-third over the depressed August low caused by the congressional debt-debate debacle.” The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index is similarly up, with the overall rate at its highest since April. Gallup reported on Jan. 24 that its economic confidence index for the week ending Jan. 22 was at its highest since the week of May 22, 2011.

With these better numbers, the Jan. 22-24 NBC/WSJ poll showed the “right-direction’’ number up to 30 percent. This level was the highest since last May, and the “wrong-track’’ number was down to 61 percent, the lowest since May. These results are still troubling, but they reflect a public that badly wants hopeful news. President Obama’s approval rating in the NBC/WSJ poll had been upside-down in both the August and October polls: 44 percent approval to 48 percent disapproval. They have now improved a bit, to 48 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval. Gallup’s weekly job-approval averages for Obama had stood at 43 percent or lower since late July, but his approval rating has been 45 percent or higher for five of the past six weeks. Those are unimpressive numbers, not indicative of an incumbent who is likely to win. The pattern is different, though, from what we saw during the last half of 2011—and worth watching.

Many economists are still skeptical about whether this is a real and durable turnaround. The likelihood of Europe sliding into a recession and slowing economic growth around the world keeps many awake at night.

At the same time as we’ve seen nominal upward movement in economic data, we’ve seen Republicans go through 19 debates with increasingly overheated rhetoric. It’s hardly shocking that the GOP presidential contenders are chasing after tea party voters. But this strategy could turn off some independents who had turned against Obama because the economy was doing so badly. These voters could plausibly turn back his way with better economic news.

For most of the past year, my own instincts were that President Obama’s chances of getting reelected were distinctly less than 50-50. They were certainly not hopeless, but unlikely. At this stage, it is less clear that that’s the case. But there is not enough evidence to call him a favorite.