Improving Economy Driving Independents Back to Obama

Obama benefiting from improving economy.

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It really is the economy, stupid.

That campaign mantra, coined by James Carville for Bill Clinton's 1992 White House run, is as true today as it was then. But this time, the improving economy is aiding the incumbent, President Barack Obama, rather than spelling his demise, as was the case for President George H.W. Bush.

A recent poll released by the Pew Research Center, shows Obama improving his standing with independent voters in a head-to-head match-up against top GOP contender Mitt Romney. Just a month ago, only 40 percent of registered independent voters nationwide preferred Obama to the former Massachusetts governor, but now that number sits at 51 percent.

"When you asked the most important problem for the past three years it's been the economy, the economy, the economy; it's at the top of the voters' agenda," says Carroll Doherty, an associate director at the Pew Research Center. "There's some indication that that may be helping Obama, as well as the image difficulties that Romney is having, not just with his own base but with independents."

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Since mid-January and Monday when the latest Pew survey was released, the unemployment rate has dropped from 8.5 percent 8.3 percent , with the economy adding nearly 250,000 jobs in the month of January. Other recent reports show Americans may be experiencing boosts in earnings and savings. And a Gallup survey released Tuesday claims people are as optimistic about the economy as they have been since Obama was elected. It doesn't hurt, either, that the stock market has been on the rebound for much of 2012.

"Americans have grown steadily more positive about current economic conditions since last August, when the budget battles, stock market declines, and fears of a double-dip recession sent economic confidence to a low for the year," writes Dennis Jacobe, Gallup's chief economist, in a release. "Americans' economic confidence, though still in negative territory, is now near its highest levels of the past four years."

But analysts also say the prolonged Republican nomination battle is taking a toll on Romney. Doherty points to Pew's findings when independents are asked about Romney's trustworthiness and his qualifications for president.

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"You start to see doubts about aspects of his image," Doherty says. "Romney had a 10 point drop with independents on whether or not he was qualified to be president and a 12 point drop with honesty and trustworthiness. So this primary fight seems to be taking a toll on Romney among the base but also among independent voters."

But despite Romney's struggles, he's still represents the GOP's best shot at the White House, according to Pew. He trails Obama by eight points, 44 percent to 52 percent. His rivals match-up less favorably in head-to-head contests, with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum garnering 43 percent to Obama's 53 and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tallying just 39 percent to Obama's 57 percent, according to Pew.

Jessica Taylor, senior analyst with the Rothenberg Report, says Obama's increased support among independents when matched with Romney may indicate some voters who were dissatisfied with the economy, or him overall, are willing to give him a second look.

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"He's come out with his budget plan and you're going to hear him talk a lot about trying to get things done," she says of Obama. "And on the other side, you have the Republicans just fighting with each other essentially for at least another month. So I think at this moment in time that could color these poll numbers."

Once the GOP selects their nominee, those independent voters may well decide to drift back to the GOP.

"With so many factors, including the economy, we're still a long way out from November. It's going to take some time for that to come into focus," she says.

Doherty notes that the Republican race has been characterized by volatility. "If you look at the history of this race, change has been the only constant," he says. "They're the key voting bloc and the opinion among independent voters is particularly fluid at this stage in a campaign where it's relatively early. They are still very much up for grabs."