Battleground Poll: Mitt more likable
By: James Hohmann
October 15, 2012 05:02 AM EDT
Mitt Romney is finally getting his Sally Field moment: They like him. At least more than they used to.
President Barack Obama clings to a 1-percentage-point national lead in a head-to-head matchup with the GOP nominee, but the first presidential debate has significantly improved Romney’s personal image.
A new POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll of likely voters puts Obama ahead of Romney 49 percent to 48 percent, a statistical tie and the same as the week before. Across the 10 states identified by POLITICO as competitive, Romney leads 50 percent to 48 percent.
Even as the head-to-head number held stubbornly steady for the past month, Romney improved his likability numbers. A slim majority, 51 percent, now views Romney favorably as a person, while 44 percent view him unfavorably.
The former Massachusetts governor had been underwater on this measure. In mid-September, 49 percent of respondents viewed him unfavorably. Going into the first presidential debate in Denver on Oct. 3, the electorate was evenly split 47 percent to 47 percent on what to make of Mitt.
On the generic congressional ballot, Democrats continue to hold a 2-percentage-point edge, 46 percent to 44 percent, over Republicans.
POLITICO considers the 10 competitive battlegrounds to be Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Obama’s enduring personal popularity has been a key reason for his political resiliency. But Obama and Romney are now essentially tied on likability: 53 percent of those surveyed have a positive impression of Obama personally, and 45 percent do not. The same number view both Romney and Obama strongly favorably as view them strongly unfavorably.
The Obama campaign outspent Romney on TV through the summer in an effort to define the challenger as a heartless corporate raider. The president’s super PAC, Priorities USA Action, even tried to link a woman’s death to Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital in one memorable attack ad that Romney hotly disputed.
Republican pollster Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group, who helped conduct the bipartisan poll, argued that Romney’s strong debate performance and Romney finally matching Obama on television spending in the swing states has erased the months of negative advertising.
“For the first time, those things that Obama had been saying were called to task,” Goeas said Sunday. “All those millions of dollars in efforts to demonize Mitt Romney disappeared overnight. That’s the impact of the debate.”
Of the 86 percent of voters who said they watched the first debate or saw coverage of it, three in four declared Romney the winner. Only 16 percent thought Obama prevailed. One in three voters said the debate made them more likely to vote for Romney, but 52 percent said it made no difference.
Romney leads by 8 points among independents, 49 percent to 41 percent. Obama won this swing group by a similar margin four years ago, but the president is edging Romney in the head-to-head ballot because of heavy Latino backing and essentially monolithic African-American support.
“The biggest concern among Democrats ought to be the increase in Romney’s favorability among independents and women,” said Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster who helped conduct the poll. “Independent and women voters didn’t know him very well, and he came across as a very personable alternative.”
“The summer was a very successful period for the Obama campaign in terms of defining Mitt Romney … and it shows,” Lake said. “There are remnants of these doubts nationally that need to be resurrected.”
Among women, Obama still holds a commanding, double-digit lead over Romney, 54 to 43 percent. Asked about Romney as a person, 46 percent of women now have a positive impression and 48 percent have an unfavorable impression, down 3 points from before the debate.
The gender gap persists on both sides. Romney leads with men by an identical 11 points, 54 percent to 43 percent.
This poll was in the field last Sunday through Thursday, after the presidential debate in Denver but before the vice presidential debate in Kentucky.
Before that debate, Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, was viewed favorably by 44 percent and unfavorably by 36 percent in the survey. Vice President Joe Biden is slightly underwater, with a 46 percent unfavorable rating and a 44 percent favorable rating.
Obama’s job approval stayed at 50 percent in the wake of the debate, the key threshold for an incumbent seeking reelection, with 48 percent disapproval.
The Democrat maintains the edge on which candidate “shares your values,” 50 percent to 46 percent. He’s also seen as the stronger leader, 49 percent to 47 percent. Romney has a 3-point edge on who can actually get things done, 48 percent to 45 percent.
Obama has largely squandered his advantage on national security. Just 48 percent approve of the president’s handling of foreign policy, compared to 46 percent who disapprove. The president had a 13-point spread in May between the percentage who approved and disapproved. More respondents now strongly disapprove of the president’s handling of events overseas than strongly approve.
Obama only has a 4-percentage-point edge over Romney on who will better handle foreign policy. In August, Obama had a 15-percentage-point advantage over his opponent.
“Certainly the Libya situation … has not completely taken away the advantage [Obama] had on foreign policy, to be fair, but certainly it has gone a long way toward neutralizing that,” said Goeas.
A Republican enthusiasm edge that has opened up in the six weeks since the conventions continues to boost Romney. Among those who describe themselves as “extremely likely” to vote, Romney leads Obama 51 percent to 47 percent. Among those who say they are “very likely” to vote, Obama leads 54 percent to 41 percent.
Lake calls these numbers “a warning to Democrats.” She adds that Obama’s support is firmer than Romney’s, with 73 percent of Obama voters saying they’re voting for their candidate compared to 59 percent who say they‘re voting for Romney.
“It will be interesting to see if that rebounds post the Biden debate,” she said.
Numbers released Oct. 5 showed the unemployment rate falling to 7.8 percent, but this good news generated little discernible movement in Obama’s direction. A slight majority, 51 percent, disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy. Romney leads by 3 points on which of the two candidates would better handle the economy and by 2 points on who can create more jobs.
Historically, according to Goeas, it takes six solid months of consistent economic news to change the electorate’s perception of how things are doing.
“The race continues to be extremely close,” Goeas said. “Obama really has two opponents in this campaign: He has Mitt Romney and he has the national economy.”
Only 53 percent of voters now say the country is on the wrong track.
Obama’s overall approval rating is a net positive on taxes, Medicare and standing up for the middle class.
But voters disapprove of Obama’s handling of the federal budget and spending by a margin of 16 points, 56 percent to 40 percent.
But Lake expects Romney will get pressed harder at Tuesday’s debate — with its town-hall format — on whether he can possibly understand the lives of regular people.
“Democrats have to turn their advantage on being for the middle-class into a broader conversation about presidential character and presidential vision,” said Lake.
Obama holds a 9-point advantage on which candidate would better sustain Medicare, but seniors continue to hold strong for Romney. The Republican leads by 17 percentage points among those older than 65. Obama is ahead by 20 points among voters younger than 45.
The POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground poll, conducted by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research Partners, surveyed 1,000 registered likely voters from Oct. 7 to Oct. 11 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.