Battleground Poll: Race still tight
By: James Hohmann
October 1, 2012 05:00 AM EDT
The presidential race is tight enough nationally that a strong performance in Wednesday’s debate by Mitt Romney could put him in the lead.
A new POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll of likely voters shows President Barack Obama ahead 49 percent to 47 percent, a point closer than a week ago and still within the margin of error.
Romney now leads by 4 points among independents, up slightly from a week ago. The Republican must overperform with that group to make up for the near monolithic support of African-Americans for Obama, as well as the huge Democratic advantage among Latinos and women.
The head-to-head numbers mostly held steady through the past two weeks.
“The basic underpinnings of this race are just not changing, and that’s what’s going to keep this a very close race,” said Republican pollster Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group, who helped conduct the bipartisan poll.
A solid 46 percent say they will vote to reelect Obama and 42 percent say firmly they’ll vote to replace him. Just 9 percent say they’ll consider someone else.
“We’ve never had a debate where the electorate was this polarized,” said Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster who helped conduct the poll. “There’s a real question about how many voters are left to move in the debate.”
Obama’s overall job approval stands at 49 percent, with an identical number of respondents disapproving. The president’s personal favorability slipped to 50 percent, with 47 percent viewing him unfavorably.
Romney remains slightly underwater on likability, with 46 percent viewing him favorably and 48 percent viewing him unfavorably. He has a problem with women, among whom Obama leads by 12 points, 54 percent to 42 percent. Asked about Romney as a person, 51 percent of women say they don’t have a good impression.
“For Romney, it’s a double goal that he has: He’s got to get that likability up, particularly among women,” said Lake. “And he’s got to draw a sharp contrast on what he’d do on the economy. That’s very difficult to do simultaneously. … It’s hard to maintain likability when you’re being an attack dog.”
Romney has not benefited from revelations about the Obama administration bungling its initial response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. Obama actually expanded his lead over Romney last week on who is better able to handle foreign policy, from 9 points to 12 points.
Democratic intensity has slipped slightly to 75 percent. A week before last, still in the afterglow of their convention, 81 percent of Democrats called themselves “extremely likely” to vote. Republican enthusiasm, meanwhile, held steady around 80 percent.
Regardless of whom they’re supporting, twice as many voters (61 percent) expect the president to prevail in November as expect him to lose.
“Democrats should be careful not to take this for granted,” said Lake. “Inevitability cannot diminish our focus on getting our voters out because the Republicans will be focused on getting their voters out.”
Pocketbook issues remain overwhelmingly the top concern of voters, and half of Wednesday’s 90-minute debate will focus on the economy.
Romney has reopened a slight advantage on which of the two candidates is bestequipped to handle the economy — 49 percent to 47 percent — and to create jobs – 48 percent to 47 percent. A slight majority, 52 percent, disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy.
Romney narrowed his gap on the question of who fights harder for the middle class. During the media firestorm over his “47 percent” comments, the poll showed him trailing by 19 points on the question. Now he’s down only 13 points — 54 to 41 percent. This double-digit deficit remains a problem, though, because three in four likely voters consider themselves part of the middle class.
Lake said Obama has persuaded most middle-class voters that he’s fighting for them, but he hasn’t convinced them that he has a plan to help them if he gets reelected.
“Now we’ve got to prove we can do something about their lives,” she said.
Of the 11 issues on which the candidates were pitted against one another, Romney’s clearest edge came on the federal budget and spending: Fifty-six percent disapprove of Obama’s handling of the issue — 47 percent strongly so. By a 7-point margin, voters believe Romney is best equipped to tackle the debt.
Obama holds a 3-point edge on which candidate has a better tax plan. This is traditionally a Republican issue, and the lead is notable for someone who makes raising taxes on the wealthy a centerpiece of his campaign.
One of six debate segments will focus on health care. Obama leads Romney by 8 points on who is best for health care generally and Medicare specifically.
Another segment is about governing. Obama leads Romney on the questions of who shares your values (48 percent to 45 percent) and who is the stronger leader (50 percent to 43 percent). But Romney has an advantage (47 percent to 45 percent) on who can “get things done.”
Goeas said to watch these three indicators as a gauge for the gut reaction of voters to the debate.
Obama is trailing slightly with independents. In 2008, the Democrat carried them by 7 percent — the same margin as his overall victory. But right now, he’s softer on the individual issues than is reflected in the head-to-head matchup, which shows him behind by 4 points with independents.
Romney has a 14-point edge on jobs and an 11-point edge on the economy among independent voters. More than 60 percent disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy and spending. Romney even has a slight advantage on taxes. He ties the president on who is the stronger leader and leads by 9 points on who has the best ability to get things done.
Among all likely voters, 56 percent say the country is on the wrong track. This number has fallen because 72 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of African-Americans now say the country is on the right track. Yet two in three independents still think the country’s on the wrong track.
“He has to be careful of accepting and affirming the praise of the Democrats who think the country’s going in the right direction and assuring people he can change the direction with four more years,” said Goeas. “He doesn’t want to do anything to dampen enthusiasm he’s getting from Democrats, but he can’t afford to be removed completely because the overwhelming majority thinks we’re on the wrong track.”
The POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground poll, conducted by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research Partners, surveyed 1,000 registered likely voters from Sept. 24 to Sept. 27 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.