Back in mid January, when the presidential primary season began and interest in the Republican candidates spread beyond the tight community of political junkies, Mitt Romney's previously untarnished reputation with the general public took a nasty turn.
Some of the disenchantment might be rooted in the conservative positions Romney has taken to win over the right-wing base. The out-of-touch references to his personal wealth have surely hurt. Whatever the reason, current national polling shows that roughly 45 percent of the electorate view the former Massachusetts governor unfavorably, an unusually sad number at this stage of the game for a party's likely nominee.
The result, among much of the media and Democratic loyalists, has been a growing assumption that Barack Obama faces a cakewalk to re-election. It's not just giddy and relieved denizens of the beltway who are suddenly assuming a second term for Obama. Many on the right have drawn the same conclusion — even advising Republicans to concentrate their efforts on congressional campaigns, rather than wasting time and resources on Romney's doomed run. Business-news site cnbc.com reported this past week that some of the recent strength of the stock market comes from the belief among institutional investors that there is no longer any "uncertainty" about the November election.
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll found, for the first time, more than half of Americans expect Obama to be re-elected.
But consider that, in the same poll, Obama's disapproval also hit 50 percent, for the first time since November. And another poll out this week, from the New York Times/CBS News, showed 47 percent disapproving of the president's performance, and a new low of just 41 percent approving.
Those same polls show broad disapproval of Obama's handling of the economy, Iran, deficit spending, and gasoline prices.
In fact, despite much talk of the president's resurgent standing, his approval ratings have budged very little since the start of the year — despite a steady stream of good economic news.
The writer Franklin Pierce Adams is credited with saying: "Elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody." And, as is often the case with an incumbent president in tough times, opinions against Obama are far more firmly fixed than those toward his would-be replacement.
No doubt, if the economic recovery booms — or busts — over the next eight months, opinion of the president will rise or fall accordingly, determining the outcome of the election.
But barring either extreme, the evidence seems to suggest that opinions about Obama won't move all that much. And with his numbers where they are, that means he's vulnerable to defeat at the hands of a strong candidate.
And despite everything, Romney is still that strong candidate, well-suited in many ways to what the Republicans need in 2012.
For much of this election cycle, Obama has done better in polls against actual GOP candidates, with their various flaws and foibles — but poorly against an unnamed, so-called generic Republican.
If anyone comes close to being a generic Republican candidate — in a positive way — it's Romney.