Americans' attitudes toward Mitt Romney are firming up, and a new free-association poll by the Pew Research Center suggests they are now less focused on his religion and more aware of his wealth.
When 1,009 adults were asked to give a one-word response about Mitt Romney in December, the top response was "Mormon," with "rich" 18 spots down the list. Last week the same poll was repeated, and this time the top slot went to "no/no way" with "rich" right behind. Another word that shifted significantly was "flip-flopper," which fell from third to seventh.
Romney's negatives on this measure are high. With the general adult population sample (not registered or likely voters), Pew notes that 14 percent offered positive words, while 30 percent offered negative words and 29 percent used neutral terms. According to Pew, 28 percent offer no opinion, down from 43 percent in December.
December's top Romney responses were Mormon (47 percent), no/no way (23), flip-flopper (19), good (15), OK (15) and religion (10).
The current top responses for Romney are no/no way (31 percent), rich (30), good (19), Mormon (18), moderate (15), business (15), flip-flopper (11), idiot (11), possibility (11) and untrustworthy (10).
Romney also lags in favorability ratings in a new ABC/Washington Post poll of adults. Again, this is not a poll for registered voters or likely voters. It shows Romney falling to 50 percent unfavorable and 34 percent favorable and sets that against President Barack Obama's 43 percent unfavorable to 53 percent favorable status.
Jon Cohen in the Washington Post points out that in 2008, after Obama had been through a tough primary fight, his standing among independents was much higher than Romney's. "Obama’s relative low point among independents in 2008 was in mid-April, when 57 percent said they had favorable impressions and 37 percent had unfavorable ones. In the new poll, Romney is underwater with independents: 35 percent view him favorably, 52 percent unfavorably," the article says.
But these polls are more emotional than intentional. More on point may be a series of Quinnipiac University polls out this week that suggest that Romney has slipped somewhat in key swing states but remains competitive.
Florida: Obama leads Romney 49 to 42 percent
Ohio: Obama leads Romney 47 to 41 percent
Pennsylvania: Obama leads Romney 45 to 42 percent
"President Barack Obama is on a roll in the key swing states. If the election were today, he would carry at least two states. And if history repeats itself, that means he would be re-elected," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in a press release.
"But the election is not today. It is seven months away. Two months ago President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney were in a statistical tie in Ohio and Florida," Brown added.
"The biggest reason for the president's improving prospects probably is the economy. Roughly six in 10 voters in all three states think the economy is recovering. Moreover, voters blame the oil companies and oil-producing countries for the rise in gasoline prices, and only about one in six voters blame them on President Obama," the release said.
"Although the lead Romney had over Obama in trial matchups late last year has disappeared, he remains the stronger of the two major GOP contenders. Voters in Pennsylvania still see Romney as better able than the president to fix the economy, and both Romney and Obama are stronger than Sen. Rick Santorum on that measure in each state."
Which leads us to Nevada, a must-win state for Romney with a weak economy and a large Mormon population. Conventional wisdom holds that Harry Reid's narrow re-election in 2010 was more due to Tea Party bungling than to Democratic strength. But a recent Rasmussen poll shows Romney trailing 50 to 44 percent there.
In sum, the swing state results and Romney's lagging favorabilities set the narrative for the summer campaign. While there is still ample time for change, and the weak economy and gas prices still leave massive uncertainties, the story from this point will of necessity hinge on any movement Romney can force in these key swing states and in his overall public standing.
In a Washington Post blog post, Ed Rogers argues that Romney needs to analyze these polls and tackle his negatives head-on, breaking out the weak points and fixing them. Rogers focuses particularly on suburban women and the perception of wealthy aloofness.
"The positive news for Romney is that he is not a good bad guy. He has an optimistic, happy disposition, so nothing about his persona has to be hidden by his campaign. But with the media looking for ways to highlight the negatives and the Democratic machine constantly throwing tacks in his path, it won't be easy to develop a fresh appeal," Rogers writes.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at email@example.com.