Why the presidential fight seems stuck in neutral

CBS

News Analysis

(CBS News) If you pay close attention to the news, you've spent your summer being inundated with reports on the ups and downs of the presidential campaign. Both campaigns have done everything they can to define the opposition in the worst possible terms: Mitt Romney as an outsourcer. President Obama as contemptuous of small businesses owners. And on and on and on.

Yet despite all the attacks, all the news reports, all the noise, one thing has barely changed: The poll numbers. CBS News polling in April showedthe two men tied 46 to 46 nationally; a poll in May had Romney up three points; a poll earlier this month had Romney up one. In all of the polls, the differences were within the margin of error. 

This despite the fact that the news media - and CBS News is certainly no exception - churns out story after story examining each day's developments as though they will have a lasting impact. Think back on the Romney stories alone: There was the great "Etch-a-Sketch" imbroglio, "corporations are people," and last week's London gaffe feeding frenzy. Each story brought with it a flood of analysis over "What it All Means." And none seemed to move the needle.

(Watch a clip of Obama's recent web and radio address.)

So what's going on here? For starters, many people simply aren't paying attention yet. It's summer and many Americans have more appealing things to do than worry about, say, whether or not Romney really worked at Bain Capital between 1999 and 2002.

But it's not just that. Compared to the last time around, the 2012 presidential election is, quite frankly, a little bit boring. Mr. Obama isn't an idealistic messenger of hope and change seeking to become the nation's first black president anymore - and he isn't coming off an epic battle with Hillary Clinton in the primary. Unlike John McCain and George W. Bush, Romney seems to struggle to excite even those who plan to vote for him. And while we don't know Romney's running mate yet, it seems safe to assume he or she will be a lot easier to ignore than Sarah Palin.

In July 2008, 53 percent of registered voters told CBS News they were paying "a lot" of attention to the campaign. Now that figure is 45 percent. The percentage of people who say they are paying little or no attention to the campaign, meanwhile, is 17 percent today, seven percentage points higher than it was four years ago.

(Watch a clip of CBS News' Jan Crawford's recent interview with Romney.)

It's easy to see why voters don't seem to be as interested in Mr. Obama this time around: His presidential campaign, after all, is a sequel. Romney is a different story: As Michael Tomasky pointed out last month, he has played down the aspects of his life story - his religion, career and time in public office - that would help people forge a connect with him. Romney has made clear that he wants this year's election to be a referendum on the president, which has meant he has offered little detail about his biography or policy positions. That leaves voters with precious little to grab onto when they want to get to know him better. In the latest CBS News poll, nearly one third of voters say they don't yet have enough information to decide whether they have an unfavorable or favorable opinion of Romney. 

This will change, of course. It is widely assumed that more voters will start tuning in at the end of August/start of September, which brings both the end of summer and the party nominating conventions. By the time the presidential debates take place in October, a vibrant national conversation should be well underway. But for now, the lack of movement in the polls suggest Americans are far more interested in their own lives than they are the two men running for president.

For Romney, that's a double-edged sword: While he still has an opportunity to define himself positively, the Obama campaign still has the chance to define him negatively. The election may well come down to which side has successfully figured out how to make their message stick by the time that voters finally start tuning in.

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