President Barack Obama's election hopes in the fall may be linked to the recurring economic crisis in Europe.

Story highlights

Obama's poll standing is closely tied to economic performance

U.S. election outcome could depend on changes in Europe's economy

Europe's economy could be at a tipping point this year

Labeling Romney a right winger may not work if the global economy implodes

Washington CNN  — 

President Obama’s opponents like nothing more than tying him to a socialist Europe, the bogeyman of today’s American right. Whatever the merits of their claims policy-wise, they might be onto something from a campaign perspective.

As it turns out, the fate of Obama’s re-election bid could hinge more on what happens in France or Spain than Ohio over the next six months. Europe’s economic woes could push America’s soft recovery into reverse, and Mitt Romney into the White House.

The first three months of 2012 couldn’t have been better for the president. Romney was pushed to the right by disenchanted Republican primary voters while the U.S. economy gathered steam. Roughly 600,000 jobs were created, unemployment edged down by 0.3% and the Dow jumped more than 8%. The broader S&P 500 rose by a whopping 12%.

U.K. in recession for 2nd time since 2008

Improving economic conditions were reflected in the polls. The number of registered voters who said the economy is in good shape rose by 13% between January and March, according to the CNN/ORC International Poll. The late March survey showed Obama beating Romney by 11 percentage points among registered voters. An average of several notable polls conducted around the same time showed a slightly tighter race, with Obama up 6%.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. An April 13-15 CNN/ORC International Poll showed Obama’s edge over Romney dropping to 9 points. You can chalk that up to the sampling error, but CNN’s most recent “poll of polls” showed Obama’s advantage dropping to 3 points.

What happened?

First, according to several analysts, there was a natural post-primary tightening of the race as disenchanted conservatives began to fall into line behind Romney. Arch-conservatives will never love the former Massachusetts governor, but intense Obama hatred is expected to bring them out in November.

Romney’s “positions are perfectly fine with the base,” argues veteran GOP strategist Charlie Black, who is now offering counsel to Romney. “The organized conservative movement just needs to have some communication and encouragement to come on board.”

Second, the economy stumbled. There was a jump in unemployment claims, and each of the market indexes logged their biggest weekly declines of the year. A revision in monthly employment data showed employers adding only 120,000 jobs in March – badly missing expectations. There was a poor housing starts report, and prices at the pump remained stubbornly high.

The economy remains the dominant issue this year, and voters are now split on which candidate is better able to help spur a stronger recovery: 44% of voters say Obama is more likely to get the economy moving, while 42% choose Romney, according to the April CNN/ORC survey. This naturally translates to a tight horse race.

This is also where Obama finds himself at Europe’s mercy. The U.S. economy is currently on autopilot. A sharply polarized Congress and a tapped out Federal Reserve can’t do much more to stimulate the economy this year. European policymakers, however, could take a number of steps felt in the United States, not all of them positive from Obama’s perspective.

The rise of Europe’s far-right?

Depending on your point of view, harsh austerity measures or debt-driven market jitters are suffocating one of America’s most critical economic partners. Unemployment in the eurozone is north of 10%, and many economists expect it to climb higher this year.

While the problems of smaller countries like Greece are well known to the average American voter, economies of larger countries like Italy are also struggling. New questions are now being raised about France, where leading Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande is campaigning on a higher spending agenda completely at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s debt-driven priorities.

The kicker may prove to be Spain, which is reeling from an unfathomable 24% unemployment rate and one of the world’s worst housing busts. Robert Samuelson notes in Monday’s Washington Post that “if Spain’s crisis deepens Europe’s recession, it could tip the entire world economy into a stubborn slump.” He also notes the negative impact such a downturn could have on Obama’s re-election chances.

If Europe – one-fifth of the global economy – goes down, America goes down with it. And so could Obama. Romney – known for business turnarounds – is well positioned to appeal to the same affluent suburban white voters who flocked to Obama when the economy imploded in 2008. Tack those voters on to an angry conservative base and an alienated white working class, and you have a recipe for a Romney win.

Zakaria: Too much austerity in Europe

Obama’s team has switched strategies now, labeling Romney a hard core right winger instead of a flip flopper extraordinaire. But it’s questionable at best whether that strategy will work against the backdrop of a severely stumbling economy. Faced with a lousy economy in 1980, Jimmy Carter tried to pin the “crazy right winger” tag on Ronald Reagan. Carter ended up with 49 electoral votes.

Tune out all the noise about “mommy wars” and the gender gap. Watch the economy and, more specifically, watch Europe. That may tell you all you need to know about election night in November.

CNN’s Peter Hamby contributed to this report