A Record Shortfall in Personal Popularity Challenges Romney in the Race Ahead
(WASHINGTON) -- Mitt Romney has emerged from the Republican primary season with the weakest favorability rating on record for a presumptive presidential nominee in ABC News/Washington Post polls since 1984, trailing a resurgent Barack Obama in personal popularity by 21 percentage points.
Thirty-five percent of Americans see Romney favorably, while 47 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the former Massachusetts governor. He's the first likely nominee to be underwater -- seen more unfavorably than favorably -- in ABC/Post polls in eight presidential primary seasons across the past 28 years.
Romney's gender gap in vote preferences in an ABC/Post poll last week -- he trailed Obama by 19 percentage points among women -- is reflected in his new favorability scores as well. Just 27 percent of women see Romney favorably, compared with 44 percent of men -- his lowest rating to date among women, and highest among men, in a dozen ABC/Post polls since September.
Obama, by contrast, has no such gap between the sexes; he's seen favorably by 56 percent of Americans overall, including 58 percent of women and 53 percent of men, surpassing Romney in both groups.
Romney's also got an enthusiasm gap: Just 12 percent see him "strongly" favorable, about half as many as see him strongly unfavorable. Intensity of sentiment on Obama is more even, tipping slightly to the positive -- 30 percent strongly favorable, 26 percent strongly unfavorable.
It's worth noting that favorability is not the same as voting preference -- i.e., poll questions asking people whom they'd support if the election were today. That construct is a hypothetical one; the election is not today. Ultimate voting decisions are based on a range of factors -- partisanship, policy preferences, perceptions of the candidates on policy and personal qualities alike. Personal favorability is one of the most basic measures among these.
Romney's ratings are a bit better among registered voters, 40-48 percent favorable-unfavorable, though still trail Obama's in this group, 54-43 percent. Nonetheless it's been a long rut for Romney; his favorability rating among all adults has remained between 31 and 39 percent steadily since fall, never yet cracking 40 percent. Its average across this time is 35 percent, exactly where it is today.
Still, Romney can point to previous turnarounds. His favorable score is just a whisker from the previous low, Bill Clinton's 37 percent in March 1992, in a race Clinton went on to win. But Clinton was damaged at the time by the Gennifer Flowers scandal and aided by soft ratings of the first President Bush, who was seen unfavorably by 47 percent, matching Romney's negative rating among all adults today.
Obama's not currently showing that kind of vulnerability: His overall 56 percent favorability rating is his most positive in nearly two years; 40 percent rate him unfavorably. Obama's favorable score has gained 9 points since September, and his unfavorable rating has dropped by 6, as economic gains lifted consumer sentiment out of its longest, deepest downturn in decades.
If Romney can improve, Obama can stumble. His favorability rating was nearly matched by John Kerry's at about this point in 2004 and Mike Dukakis' in 1988 -- yet both faded and went on to lose. On the other hand, Obama's rating now also was approximately matched by two incumbents who went on to win re-election, Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Clinton in 1996.
One bit of Romney's baggage is the public's negative assessment of the nominating process from which he's emerging. Thirty-two percent of Americans rate "the Republican primaries" as a whole favorably; 56 percent, unfavorably.
These views have arisen in the midst of two dynamics -- one, the contentious Republican primaries, the other, improving public ratings of economic conditions. The former are all but over, a change that should be welcome for Romney. The latter remains to be seen -- with the economy's direction as critical in the six months ahead as it's been in the six just past.
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