What's behind President Obama's swing-state surge? 6 theories

New polls show Obama comfortably leading his GOP challenger in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania — even though the economy is still stuck in neutral

President Obama speaks at a campaign event in Ohio
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If the presidential election were held today, President Obama would coast to a second term. That's the takeaway from three new polls from Quinnipiac University, conducted in conjunction with The New York Times and CBS News, that show Obama with sizable leads over Mitt Romney in three swing states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. In most electoral scenarios, the winning candidate will have to win at least two of those states, and Obama is ahead by 6 points in Florida, 6 in Ohio, and 11 in Pennsylvania. The polls found that only "a sliver of voters, 4 percent in each state, say they are undecided," say Jeff Zeleny and Dalia Sussman at The New York Times, meaning neither candidate has much room to win new fans, even though about half of respondents disapproved of Obama's handling of the economy. Here, six theories for Obama's growing swing-state lead:

1. Many voters think Romney doesn't care about them

"Mitt Romney started this campaign with a problem: An image as a wealthy elitist, out of touch with middle-class life," say David A. Fahrenthold and Aaron Blake at The Washington Post. And the new polls show that "Romney still hasn't overcome that first impression." When asked, "Would you say that Mitt Romney cares about the needs and problems of people like you or not," a clear majority of respondents said "not." By contrast, at least 55 percent of respondents in all three states said Obama did care about their needs and problems.

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2. Obama's attack ads are working

The Obama campaign has spent millions of dollars in all three states to air brutal ads attacking Romney's tenure at private equity firm Bain Capital and his refusal to release several years of tax returns. The effects of that assault shows in the polls, with many likely voters expressing "concerns over his business background and his reluctance to release more of his tax returns," say Zeleny and Sussman. Respondents said Romney's business experience "was too focused on making profits at Bain Capital… rather than the kind of experience that would help create jobs." And at least half of independent voters said a candidate "should release several years of returns."

3. Women overwhelmingly support Obama

"The president's strength among women is the dominant dynamic fueling his lead," says Peter Brown at Quinnipiac. About 60 percent of women in Ohio and Pennsylvania support Obama, as do half of women in Florida. Democrats have consistently argued that the GOP is waging a war against women by curbing abortion rights and cutting off access to contraception.

4. Voters agree with Obama on raising taxes on the rich

Obama "drew broad support from voters in each state for a proposal to raise income taxes on people whose household income is more than $250,000," say Zeleny and Sussman. Romney wants to "cut tax rates by 20 percent across the board," says Brian Montopoli at CBS News, but a new study from the Tax Policy Center shows that his plan would lead to large tax cuts for wealthy Americans and increase the tax burden on middle- and lower-income Americans. (Team Romney has disagreed with the think tank's findings.)

5. Swing states have relatively low unemployment rates

Obama could be benefiting from "lower swing-state unemployment rates," says Niall Stanage at The Hill. Ohio's unemployment rate of 7.3 percent is lower than the national rate of 8.2 percent, which might make the lackluster economy less of a factor in the Buckeye State. In addition, Florida's economy appears to be improving, which could also make Obama a more palatable candidate.

6. The economy is no longer a major factor

"Usually voter preferences of an incumbent candidate track closely with the trajectory of the economy," but that's not happening this year, says Josh Kraushaar at The National Journal. It's possible that voters feel neither candidate can fix the economy's problems, and are instead voting on other factors, such as likability. "If so, that's an indictment of the Romney campaign's strategy to run exclusively on the economy, to the exclusion of other issues." Indeed, Romney is practically a stranger to most voters despite this being his second presidential run, says Beth Fouhy at The Associated Press, and he is now only now "starting to introduce himself in earnest" — before Obama's "efforts to define him in a negative light cripple his candidacy."

Sources: Associated Press, CBS News, The Hill, Quinnipiac University, National Journal, National Review, The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post

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