Update: First derivative Virginians

Quinnipiac University released its latest poll of Virginia’s registered voters and the news is not good for Obama.  Since 2011, Obama has led Romney in all trial heat match-ups that Quinnipiac released for the commonwealth, sometimes with leads well outside of polls’ margins of error.  This month’s release, however, shows that Romney has closed the gap with Obama and is tied with him 44 – 44 in a hypothetical match-up.

Quinnipiac Poll of Virginia Registered Voters:

If the election for President were being held today, and the candidates were Barack Obama the Democrat and Mitt Romney the Republican, for whom would you vote?

  July 2012 June 2012 March 2012 Feb. 2012
Obama 44% 47% 50%  47%
Romney 44% 42% 42%  43%

These poll results also show an increase in Obama’s disapproval numbers from 47% disapproval last month to 51% disapproval now.  Fifty percent also say he does not deserve a second term as president.  When it comes to who would do a better job on the economy, Romney maintains his slight lead within the poll’s margin of error:

Quinnipiac Poll of Virginia Registered Voters:

Regardless of how you intend to vote, who do you think would do a better job on the economy, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?

  July 2012 June 2012 March 2012  Feb. 2012
Obama 44% 44% 47%  44%
Romney 47% 46% 45%  47%

These results could well illustrate the public’s frustration with the sluggish economy. Virginians could be reacting to two consecutive months of disappointing jobs reports and a national unemployment rate that has remained unchanged at 8.2%.  Yet, despite the disappointing national news, Virginia continues to maintain one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.  The latest unemployment rate for Virginia stands at 5.6%, significantly below the national statistic.

This perhaps illustrates two major points in understanding the latest poll numbers and how economic numbers generally effect political preferences.  First, public perceptions of the state of the national economy may matter just as much, if not more, than local economic conditions.  Of the three southern states that Obama won in 2008 (Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia), only Virginia has a relatively strong economy.  Some political analysts have suggested that Virginia will be more in play for Obama than North Carolina or even Florida because of the commonwealth’s low unemployment rate.  But if Virginians’ perceptions are shaped more by the national media, the Romney campaign will have a wonderful opportunity to use the issue of the economy to great advantage in Virginia.

Second, the specific unemployment number does not matter much in gauging Virginians’ political predilections, but trends in these numbers sure do.  Obama scored higher approval ratings among Virginians several months ago when unemployment rates at the national and state level were higher than what they are now.  The difference is the direction of change.  For all of you calculus nerds out there, the sign of the first derivative in the unemployment numbers is probably a better predictor of Virginians political preferences.  If the first derivative in the unemployment rate is negative, Obama’s approval numbers go up.  If it’s positive, or even zero, the president’s approval goes down.

Other factors may also explain why Romney has gained favor among registered Virginians.  It may also be a fluke.  We’ll see if the Romney campaign can turn one month’s good news into a trend.  I’ll keep you posted…

Dustin Cable is a Policy Associate at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service where he conducts research on topics that lie at the intersection of demographics, politics, and public policy.