Putting too much stock in presidential polls before the party conventions can be tricky. They are meaningful because they offer a snapshot of the state of play at the moment, but they are hardly predictive because many voters don't truly engage until the election draws nearer.
That said, a series of recent polls paints a worrisome picture for Mitt Romney in the run-up to his vice presidential pick and his party's national convention. Three polls - from CNN/ORC, Fox News and Reuters/Ipsos - were released this week. President Barack Obama's lead over Romney ranged from 7 points to 9 points.
The Fox News poll showed Obama with his highest level of support this year.
So what gives? Is this real? Is it a fluke?
It's hard to say, but there are some theories.
Romney spends so much time hiding, dodging and trying to say nothing specific that when he does show up - and speak up - he bungles it. Dealing with the details is a skill that must be practiced on the campaign trail. Romney seemed to think that he could run out the clock, coast on electoral contempt for Obama, and sneak into the White House. Wrong! So the more his campaign speaks and is pressed, the more it slips up. To wit, he recently had a disastrous overseas trip, starting fires of controversy wherever the wheels of his plane touched the tarmac.
The Obama campaign and its supporters have been incredibly aggressive, vicious even, in going after Romney and trying to define him as out of touch and elitist. Many attacks have been fair - others not so - but they may be beginning to stick. According to a recent report in The New York Times, "President Obama has spent more campaign cash more quickly than any incumbent in recent history."
The Obama campaign seems to be gambling that if it defines Romney early in the minds of voters, no amount of late spending by Romney and the massive "super PACs" that support him will be able to undo it. The theory is simple really: It's impossible to separate the soda from the sugar when it's already baked into the cake. This is not at all unlike what Karl Rove and George W. Bush did to John Kerry in 2004, and it worked. Of course, that Obama and his advisers would parrot Bush and Rove is a delicious irony. (It should be pointed out that at this point in the 2004 campaign, Kerry's favorability rating was actually higher than Bush's, and he still lost. Romney's favorability has never been higher than Obama's and recently has been moving in a downward direction.)
The electorate is suffering a crippling crisis of confidence in the candidate. When Fox News asked respondents: "Regardless of how you would vote, how comfortable would you be with Mitt Romney as president?" only 26 percent said extremely or very comfortable. Seventy-one percent of those polled said that they would be only somewhat comfortable or not comfortable at all. When asked to give the main reason for their discomfort, the No. 1 reason was his position on issues, but reasons No. 2 and 3 were that he's phony or dishonest and he's out of touch. By comparison, 41 percent of respondents said that they would be extremely or very comfortable with Obama as president for four more years. Being phony or dishonest appears eighth on the list of reasons people gave for saying they were not comfortable or only somewhat comfortable with Obama, and being out of touch didn't even register. Furthermore, when CNN asked respondents, regardless of whom they supported, who they thought would win in November, they favored Obama over Romney by nearly two to one.
Romney is one of the worst presidential candidates in recent memory. He is stiff and awkward and inconsistent and struggles to connect with people. His track record is all over the place. And he's willing to say anything and embrace anyone to further his ambitions, which is as distasteful a character trait as they come. If you are straightforward with folks, they may disagree with you but most will at least respect you. I'm not sure that Romney ever learned that lesson. His "by any means necessary" approach is by all measures repugnant.
Now things are by no means settled. To the contrary, they are just about to heat up. Republicans have boatloads of money and a burning desire to unseat this president. They also have a host of voter suppression laws working in their favor, many in battleground states. And a growing sense of comfort among Democrats could lead to a loss of energy and lower turnouts.
But voters' discomfort with Romney and his own side's lack of faith in him will be high hurdles to clear come November.