Obama leads in the polls – but for how much longer?

Despite disappointing new jobs data, the latest polls show current US President Barack Obama pulling ahead of Republican rival Mitt Romney. Is it a turning point in the election campaign? spoke with top prognosticator Dr. Larry Sabato.


With rousing speeches, enthusiastic attendees, and a tone pitched carefully between optimism about the future and criticism of Mitt Romney, the Democrats’ convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week was seen as a smashing success.

Then came what many, including Romney himself, referred to as the “hangover”: Friday’s economic report, which revealed that the US added only 96,000 jobs in August, well below predictions and not enough to bring the unemployment rate down significantly.

But despite the disappointing news, polls over the weekend and on Monday showed Obama surging to his biggest lead over Romney in several months. Gallup, the most frequently cited polling agency, had Obama beating his rival 49 percent to 44 percent. CNN had Obama at 52 percent and Romney at 46 percent. Other major surveys reflected a similar trend.

Some analysts are speculating that the race has entered a new phase, in which Obama is the clear frontrunner – regardless of the sluggish economic recovery. contacted Dr. Larry Sabato, professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and the leading predictor of US electoral outcomes, for a bit of perspective.

FRANCE 24: Is Obama’s new lead an indication that Americans have "absorbed" the bad economy and are deciding they prefer Obama to Romney? Or is it just a normal post-convention “bounce”?

Larry Sabato: Historically, this is a small to medium-sized bounce – what nominees often get. The bad economic news is something people have already absorbed; that is, Americans know we have a lousy economy, and those who blame President Obama have already factored that in, to a great degree. The surprise is that Romney didn't get a bounce, not that Obama got a modest one.

F24: What specifically do you think explains the bounce? Some of the convention speeches?

LS: Michelle Obama's speech was quite good, but that's not how or why people vote. If I had to pick one speech, it would be Bill Clinton's. He hasn't lost his touch. Clinton did a much better job than Obama has ever been able to do in explaining why the Democratic alternative is better than the Republican plan. Obama's speech on the last night was average, at best.

F24: What are the odds of this bounce turning into a permanent lead in the polls?

LS: Obama has had a paper-thin advantage for months. We'll probably settle back into this later in the campaign. It's unlikely the bounce will last. No one can say for sure, but again, in history, most bounces are not durable. The underlying conditions matter. Americans are unhappy about a bad economy and think the country is seriously off on the wrong track. That should hurt Obama. At the same time, they don't much like Romney. That may save Obama.

F24: How do you explain that even with a weak recovery, and history showing that no incumbent has ever been reelected with such high unemployment, Obama is still ahead?

LS: Most people acknowledge that Obama inherited an awful economy. The fact that Democrats have only been in for four years gives Obama a decent excuse. It may be just enough to get reelected. If Obama were running after Democrats had had the White House for two terms, he'd have very little chance of winning. "Blame Bush" still has a lot of power in the US electorate.

F24: How decisive will the debates be, and what can we expect? Who is the stronger debater?

LS: Mainly, partisans tune in to cheer for their side. Absent a big gaffe, debates are rarely decisive. Just like conventions, debates can produce a temporary bump for a candidate, which fades in a week or so. Notice that the last debate has been placed well before the actual election on November 6. Both sides want a cushion of time in case a gaffe is committed. As for the better debater? Obama is more eloquent, but he was unopposed for the nomination. Romney participated in over 20 debates this year, so he's got a lot of recent experience.

F24: Now, for prognosticating. Who’s going to win in November?

LS: This will be a much closer election than 2008. As always, the burden is on the challenger to get voters to believe he's an acceptable alternative, and that they'll be better off with him, rather than the incumbent president. Voters are disappointed with Obama's performance, but they are hesitant about showing him the door – so far at least.

Our election model shows Obama winning a narrow victory. In 2008, the model showed Obama winning handily, while this time his edge is quite small, and within the standard error of the model. Obama can take nothing for granted, and an upset by Romney cannot be ruled out, depending on events in the next two months.


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