Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, answers questions about the 2012 presidential campaign so far and some of the trends that will shape this year’s congressional elections.

Q. What is the biggest surprise of this election year, compared to recent past elections?

A. Elections are referendums on the times, and if you look at the mood of the country that should point to a campaign where the Republicans are in the driver’s seat. Two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country; last fall, 79% said they were frustrated or angrywith the federal government; 89% give a negative rating to the national economy; and views of Congress are as negative as they have been in 25 years. As far as the presidential race, Barack Obama still has only a 47% job approval rating and a 38% approval rating for his handling of the economy.

Q. Why then aren’t the Republicans in the driver’s seat at this point?

A. When it comes to the presidential race, the volatility and negativity of the Republican race has a lot to do with Obama’s ability to hold his own despite his low approval numbers. Already, there have been several Republican frontrunners at various times besides Mitt Romney.

The negativity of the campaign has taken a toll and, in addition, most voters, including Republicans, find the GOP field unimpressive. Our poll in late January found that 52% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters viewed the candidates as only fair or poor compared with 46% who rated them good or excellent. Half of all Americans in one of our mid-January surveys said the campaign was too negative, and that view was shared by 48% of Republicans.

Mitt Romney, who most polls have shown to be the most competitive candidate against Obama, has seen his numbers worsen in recent months. About half of voters (52%) had an unfavorable opinion of Romney in a survey we took in early February. Romney has also lost support among independent voters who will be crucial to the election.  In January, Romney led Obama by a 50% to 40% margin among this group; in February, the support of independents swung to Obama by a 51% to 42% margin.

Q: If Obama’s approval rating and marks on the economy are liabilities for him, and the Republican field faces its own struggles, then what does that say about the outlook for the election?

A: It sets up a real conundrum: No recent president has been reelected with a jobless rate as high as Obama faces today. On the other hand, no recent challenger with favorable ratings as weak as Romney’s, or Gingrich’s, has won the White House. Something’s got to give.

Q. What about the congressional elections?

A. As I said, Congress is viewed quite negatively. The public’s view of Congress is as unfavorable as it has been in more than 25 years of Pew Research Center surveys. The fight over raising the debt ceiling last summer, which was not resolved until the 11th hour, did much to shape public opinion about the political parties. The GOP’s favorability rating, already in negative territory, fell even further after the debt imbroglio. Moreover,in December, by 53% to 33%, more described the Republican Party, rather than the Democratic Party, as more extreme in its positions. The Tea Party, which was important to the GOP’s success in the congressional elections of 2010, has not only lost support nationwide, but also in the congressional districts represented by the 60 members of the House Tea Party Caucus. The image of the Republican Party also has declined even more sharply in these GOP-controlled districts than across the country at large.

Q. Have your surveys pointed to any particular issues, aside from the overall concern about the economy, that may characterize the upcoming campaigns?

A: One issue that looms in this year’s elections is the income inequality issue. One of our recent polls found that 66% of Americans believed there were “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor – an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009. But it is important to underline that this is more an issue about perceptions of fairness than class conflict. Our polling has found, for instance, that what bothers Americans most is not the amount of taxes they pay, but their belief that the wealthy are not paying their fair share. To repair their image, Republicans will have to deal with the fairness question. By the same token, candidates of either party should recognize the limits of reading the frustration of Americans as a call for class warfare.