First, even in the wave year for Democrats of 2008, with Obama in full "hope and change" mode and running to become the first African-American president against a highly dispirited Republican party which didn't really like their own candidate, John McCain, the electorate was only +7 Democrats. In 2010, a wave year for Republicans, the split was even. There is no way Democrats are as enthused this year as they were in 2008, and it is likely that an even greater Republican enthusiasm will emerge in 2012 when voters have a chance to vote against Obama himself and not just his Congressional surrogates. If there is an even split among Dems and Republicans, it is likely that Romney would be well in the lead.
Second, this is registered voters. Polls of likely voters are always more Republican, for the simple reason that Republicans tend to be responsible adults who actually go vote. So Romney probably picks up a couple of points there too.
No wonder Post columnist Michael Gerson is so dour:
Obama is showing signs of ideological exhaustion. He seems incapable of producing an economic agenda equal to his political challenge.
The administration is left with one main self-justification: Financial panics cause longer downturns and slower recoveries. This is historically correct, but not the primary issue. The relevant question: Has Obama accelerated or slowed the recovery?
Obama is not responsible for the euro-zone crisis or the softening of the Chinese economy. But he has done several things to hinder American recovery. “He turned a temporary expansion of government, through TARP and the auto bailouts, into a permanent expansion of government,” argues Keith Hennessey of the Hoover Institution. “Government, measured by federal spending, is this year about 15 percent bigger than the historical average, measured relative to the economy. . . . This drains resources from private firms and individuals and means slower productivity growth.”
Obama’s major regulatory initiatives, particularly Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, have added to economic uncertainty. Businesses are waiting for the implications of these laws to become clear, and federal rules to be written, before making investment choices. At the same time, the Obama administration has failed to make tough calls and secure legislative compromises on a variety of issues — the federal debt, future tax rates, the Keystone XL pipeline — that might remove sources of economic uncertainty. Instead, we get short-term policy extensions on large policy matters.
Given both the state of the economy and his policy performance, the buoyancy of Obama’s polling is a political marvel. But a portion of this depends on doubts about Mitt Romney, which can be eased. A humanizing Romney convention speech, some reassuring debate performances, a few innovative policy proposals appealing to Latinos or suburban women — and Romney becomes a more broadly imaginable president.
In this case, Obama could well suffer a Carter-like collapse, circa 1980. Not because of an ideological shift but a simple, collective judgment: He did not deliver recovery.
Now Gerson is no liberal -- he used to work at the Heritage Foundation, for Pete's sake! But he does work now at the Washington Post, so he's conservative in the same way David Brooks is conservative at the New York Times -- he's the type of conservative Washington types will invite to their cocktail parties. The upshot is that I think he's channelling what appears to be some real panic in the liberal establishment in Washington.