Romney's simple strength

As Barack Obama faces a tight race for re-election to the White House, Kiwi pollster Stephen Mills looks at what the numbers are saying about his prospects, at home and further afield.

It would be much easier for Barack Obama to be re-elected in New Zealand than the United States.

An overwhelming majority of New Zealanders would vote for Barack Obama if they had the chance. Given a hypothetical vote, 66 per cent would favour Obama and a mere 7 per cent his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.

New Zealanders have always favoured Democrats in UMR polling but never by such a big margin.

We like Obama a lot more, too. He has a handsome 82 per cent favourable/11 per cent unfavourable rating from New Zealanders. Fewer have an opinion on Romney, but it is breaking negative at 14 per cent favourable/31 per cent unfavourable.

New Zealanders expect Obama to prevail as well. Seventy per cent expect an Obama victory and 10 per cent a Romney victory.

It is going to be a lot closer than this in the United States. Numerous presidential polls mostly show the result is lineball.

On the face of it, Romney does not seem a match for Obama. Republicans did not want him in 2008. While he certainly showed resolve it was a long hard fight for him to secure the Republican nomination this time around against what looked, at least to non-American eyes, to be a bunch of extremists and eccentrics.

Obama is a more skilful politician than the often clumsy Romney. US polls also show he is much more likeable and by decisive margins.

But what Romney does have is the priceless political asset of a simple story to tell. All elections - no matter what the range of issues, the gaffes and scandals - come down to a straightforward winning proposition for the successful party or person.

Quite often it is as simple as, time for a change.

In a country where economic anxiety is running at very high levels, Romney's message is he can fix the economy better than Obama.

He has some traction on this. A Gallup poll in May showed 61 per cent said Romney would do a very good or good job of handling the economy ahead of Obama on 52 per cent. Another in the same month showed 55 per cent thought the economy would be better in four years' time if Romney was president, again ahead of Obama on 46 per cent.

Obama, on the other hand, seems to be testing different core messages. It is never a good sign when your core appeal is not blindingly obvious.

It is hard for Obama to run on his record. His supporters argue he has got more things done than any president since Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, but that's not what voters think. A Washington Post/ ABC News poll in January showed only 12 per cent thought he had accomplished a "great deal" while 52 per cent thought he had accomplished "not very much" or "little or nothing".

One possibility he seemed to be exploring was to carefully claim that the American economy was gradually improving and there were numbers, albeit fragile, to support that.

The problem is, it isn't necessarily believed by voters. In a late May Rasmussen poll, only 31 per cent thought the United States was on the right track with 62 per cent saying that it is on the wrong track.

The equivalent figures in New Zealand from a UMR poll on the eve of John Key's re- election in 2011 were almost the exact reverse at 59 per cent right track; 28 per cent wrong track.

It also leaves Obama at the mercy of month-to-month figures on the health of the United States economy and at total risk if the European problems trigger a general world downturn.

That then leaves him with the option of shredding Mitt Romney. There is plenty of material to work with. Romney's vulnerabilities are well-known.

He is prone to gaffes that awkwardly highlight his wealth and privileged upbringing. He can be attacked as out of touch and elitist.

He made what now looks like the unfortunate mistake of winning the governorship of the heartland Democratic state of Massachusetts. That has left him open to charges of lacking core principles as he has shifted multiple positions from those necessary to win centrist Democrats to those necessary to win the Republican primaries.

His business career at the restructuring company Bain Capital can be reframed to portray him as a merciless destroyer of companies and jobs.

But that would all be a big comedown for a man who won on hope and change and a slogan of "yes we can".

And in a frightened and anxious electorate it might not be enough against "I can fix this".

Stephen Mills is the executive director of UMR Research Ltd. The New Zealand results mentioned above were from questions included in a UMR Research telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 750 New Zealanders 18 years plus from June 7-12.

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