The key takeaway from our March Gallup/USA Today update of voters' attitudes in 12 key swing states: Barack Obama is better positioned against Mitt Romney now than he has been -- at least, for the moment.
Our first four polls in the swing states between October of last year and February of this year showed Obama losing to Romney by between one and five percentage points. Now, in the March poll, Obama has moved ahead of Romney by nine points among registered voters. Clearly, at least as of March 20-26, voters in the 12 swing states were significantly more positive about Obama and more negative about Romney than they have been.
Let's review here. Obama was at a two-point deficit to Romney in the swing states in February (let’s call that a -2) and was at a nine-point advantage in March (+9). That’s a swing across an 11-point gap between the two polls. (Obama gained five points between the two polls, from 46% to 51%, while Romney lost six points, dropping from 48% to 42%).
The natural inclination at this point is to look for an explanation for this shift. We know that Romney was in the middle of a bruising GOP nomination battle in March, which could have hurt him -- but of course he was in the middle of a bruising GOP nomination battle in February, when he did much better against Obama in the swing states.
So we look further. And one often fertile area for our analysis when we see these types of changes from poll to poll is changes within subgroups.
Now, if everything else is equal, Obama’s gap gain would be 11 points in every subgroup of the population. That is, in this "everything equal" scenario, Obama would have gained 11 points among young people, 11 points among old people, 11 points among blacks, 11 points among non-blacks, 11 points in each region of the country, 11 points among the well-educated, 11 points among the less educated, and so on. If that were the case, we wouldn't have much additional information to help fuel our desire to find out more about Obama's gains from February to March.
But that is not the case, as it rarely is. With these types of trends, it almost always turns out that the overall change is reflected proportionately more in some subgroups and proportionately less in other subgroups.
And that’s certainly what happened as far as trends by gender were concerned between February and March. In February, Obama was behind Romney by seven points among men (-7) and leading among women by four points (+4). That's an 11-point gender gap. Putting these two together led to Obama’s overall -2 position for Obama vis-a-vis Romney in the swing states in February.
In March, the Obama’s net among men was -1, an improvement of six points (from a -7 to a -1). In March the Obama net among women was +18, an improvement of 14 points (from +4 to +18). Thus, in March, the gender gap increased to 19 points (from 11 points in February). So clearly, Obama’s overall more positive standing in the trial heat poll in March was due to a bigger gain among women than his gain among men.
That leads one to assume that Obama's gains in March were due to some event, environmental change, or other occurrence that affected women more than it affected men.
To be sure, Obama has always does better among women than among men in these trial heats. That’s the fabled gender gap built on the fact that women are more Democratic in today’s American society than are men. The gender difference in March’s Swing States poll -- the +18 among women compared to the -1 among men -- is, however, larger than what we saw in February.
But, when we look back across our five swing state polls, we see that the 19 point gender gap in March (again, based on the difference in the Obama-Romney margin between men and women) is not totally unusual. The accompanying chart shows that although the gender gap was 11 and 12 points in our February and January Swing States polls, respectively, it was 16 and 22 in the previous two polls last fall. So while Obama has gained strength and Romney has lost strength on a relative basis among women in March, the relative difference between the genders is actually smaller than it was in October.
That adds some knowledge to our attempt to interpret Obama’s stronger positioning in March, which -- as I noted -- is his strongest position overall in any of the five Swing States polls we have conducted.
Clearly one hypothesis is that something happened between February and March which caused women to move disproportionately (compared to men) toward Obama and/or away from Romney. The data clearly show that the Obama-Romney gap expanded by 14 points among women compared to an expansion of six points among men.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to tease out precisely what's behind these types of changes. There are plausible events out there in the environment that may be involved. One of the most prominent: the fact that the Republicans and Obama got heavily involved in discussions about the role of the government in birth control -- at least indirectly through the insurance provisions of the Affordable Care Act. That could have caused women in the swing states to shift more toward Obama and away from Romney. We can't document empirically, however, just how much that was a factor.
The fact that the current disparity in the presidential preferences between men and women is not as large as it was in October, additionally, suggests that some type of more natural regression back to a larger gender gap may be occurring.
We’ll look forward to our next Swing States poll, which will be forthcoming in April. At that point, we will know if Obama's expanded lead over Romney continues, and/or if his expanded gender gap continues as well.
I've been involved in tracking presidential preferences here at Gallup since the 1992 election. I can say that it is not uncommon for ballot positionings to shift from poll to poll at this stage in the campaign.
Our own national poll of registered voters, conducted March 25-26 (as opposed to the broader March 20-26 time frame of the Swing States poll), showed Obama with a 49% to 45% lead over Romney. That was up from a dead-even tie in February, but this overall swing in the gap of four points nationally was more modest than the overall swing in the gap of 11 points we found in the swing states.
Obama, as is the case for all Democratic presidential candidates in recent elections, has an advantage among women. That advantage seems to have expanded in swing states in March, possibly the result of the dust-up over the government's role in birth control. It will be important to continue to monitor the presidential race in the swing states in the weeks to come. Whatever it was that was behind Obama’s strong positioning overall and among women in the swing states in March could shift by the time of our next measure.