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Mitt Romney's newfound popularity: 5 theories

Romney's favorability ratings have jumped significantly since the days when he was fighting a heated primary battle. Who's warming to Romney, and why?

Americans appear to have warmed up to Mitt Romney since he effectively clinched the Republican presidential nomination earlier this spring. Fifty percent of respondents in a new Gallup poll said they have a favorable opinion of the former Massachusetts governor, while only 41 percent gave him an unfavorable rating. That's quite a swing since February, when only 39 percent viewed Romney positively and 49 percent negatively. What accounts for the sharp change? Here, five theories:

1. He's no longer getting beat up by GOP rivals"This is [Romney's] honeymoon period," Doug Usher of pollster Purple Strategies tells Talking Points Memo. For months, he was getting pummeled on a daily basis by Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and his other rivals in the Republican primaries. But those candidates have all bowed out, so now, Romney is not taking as many "negative hits" from as many GOP sources, which is making it easier for Republicans and independents alike to see him in a favorable light.

2. The GOP base is finally accepting him as their nomineeTeam Obama has been "throwing the kitchen sink at Romney lately," says Josh Kraushaar at The Atlantic. Yet nothing — not spotlighting a Washington Post story painting him as a high school bully, nor ads portraying Mitt as a "heartless capitalist" — has slowed the Republican's rise in the polls. This just shows that "Romney's numbers were being held down earlier by conservatives who hadn't yet warmed to him as the nominee." They're coming on board now that the primaries are settled, putting Obama and Romney "on similarly favorable footing."

3. Independents are getting to know himMost Americans don't spend their evenings watching primary debates on TV, says John Hinderaker at Power Line. Now that the race is between Romney and Obama, many independents who don't like Obama's policies are taking their first real look at the Republican alternative. It's perfectly logical that this would nudge his ratings higher, "as Romney comes across as reasonable, competent and likable." And more independents "won't really tune in until the fall," so his numbers might continue to improve right up until election day.

4. Obama's economic troubles are helping MittVoters are worried about the economy, says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post, and they're not happy with Obama's handling of it. Obama re-election campaign is trying to tell people that it's too risky to change leaders now because that might derail the recovery. The thing is, they're actually making Romney look more appealing. To many ordinary Americans, the idea of taking the economy out of Obama's hands and entrusting it to a candidate with experience turning around troubled companies doesn't sound scary. It sounds like "a promise of better times." 

5. Romney had nowhere to go but upLet's not forget that Romney had plenty of room for improvement, says Jeffrey M. Jones at Gallup. Even with this jump, his favorability rating "ranks among the lowest for recent nominees" in the first poll after they effectively clinched the nomination. In the last 20 years, only Bill Clinton in 1992 had a lower score, and that was largely because he was, at the time, a governor from Arkansas who a quarter of the country had never heard of. Fortunately for Romney, Obama's numbers remain somewhat low. "That means the 2012 election could match two of the least well-liked candidates in recent elections, in contrast to the 2008 election, in which Obama and McCain were two of the most well-liked."

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