Battleground Poll: Obama, Romney In Dead Heat

James Hohmann

A new POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll finds a dead heat in the presidential race six months before the election.

Mitt Romney edged out President Barack Obama 48 percent to 47 percent among likely voters, a number well within the margin of error, as Republicans rapidly consolidate behind the likely GOP nominee.

The former Massachusetts governor has opened up a 10-point lead, 48 percent to 38 percent, among independents in a poll conducted Sunday, April 29 through Thursday, May 3 and a 6-point lead among those who describe themselves as “extremely likely” to vote in November. Obama led Romney by 9 points overall in POLITICO’s February’s poll.

But there are suggestions that these numbers are extremely fluid: Obama holds double-digit leads over the presumptive Republican nominee on issues such as who will better handle foreign policy and who will stand up for the middle class and on “sharing your values.” But enduring concern about the economy — by far the most important issue to voters — keeps the president in a tenuous position despite employment numbers that show slight but steady improvement.

(See full poll results here.)

While approval of Congress remains in the basement at 13 percent, the poll shows that voters aren’t inclined to throw all the bums out in another major push for change.

The GOP has taken a narrow 45 percent to 43 percent lead on the generic congressional ballot, according to the poll, and 65 percent believe Republicans will continue to control the House majority after the election. Forty-one percent believe Democrats will keep the Senate majority.

Despite the buzz about who will be Romney’s vice presidential pick, nearly two-thirds of respondents said the vice presidential nominee will not affect their vote. Of the 35 percent who said it will have an impact, just 7 percent described the veep choice as extremely important to their decision.

The president’s job approval rating stands at 48 percent, down 5 points from February and a number now equal to the percentage of voters who disapprove of Obama’s performance.

The results signal that as the general election phase of the campaign gets under way, who will win the presidency is a jump ball.

A full 91 percent of Republicans support Romney, slightly exceeding the percentage of Democrats who support Obama.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who helped conduct the bipartisan poll, called it “a predictable tightening of the race.”

“You have both sides very consolidated,” she said. “There are no signs of fissures on either side, but you have the Democrats less enthusiastic than the Republicans.”

Americans are split evenly about Obama’s economic policies: Forty percent said he’s made the economy better; 39 percent said he’s made it worse; and 19 percent said he’s had no impact on it.

Republican pollster Ed Goeas of The Tarrance Group said the 19 percent who don’t think Obama has affected the economy — which split 46 percent for Romney and 44 percent for Obama — will decide the election.

“Do they break to believing the economy is better? Do they break to believing the economy is not better?” he said Sunday. “Watch that. It’s key.”

Voters have mixed feelings about the direction of the economy: Forty-two percent believe its growing; 22 percent think it’s not moving; and 34 percent believe it’s either in a recession or approaching one.

That split exists despite 59 percent of respondents saying the country is headed down the wrong track. Just one-third believe the country is moving in the right direction, a troublingly low number for any incumbent.

Most respondents have already made up their minds about how to vote in the fall: Forty-three percent said with certainty they will vote to reelect Obama, and 42 percent said they will vote to replace the president. Eleven percent said they will consider voting for someone else.

A gender gap still exists, but it appears to be narrowing. Obama leads among women by 7 percentage points, while Romney has the same lead among male voters. But among women younger than 45 , Obama leads 57 percent to 39 percent. Yet Romney leads among women older than 45, 50 percent to 45 percent. The Republican also leads among white women, 57 percent to 38 percent.

The electorate continues to overwhelmingly agree the most important issues in the election are the economy (28 percent), government spending (17 percent) and jobs (14 percent). A problem for the president: A plurality of voters disapproves of Obama’s performance in these three critical areas.

But that doesn’t mean Romney has a decisive advantage. On who specifically would better handle job creation, Obama leads Romney, 48 percent to 46 percent. On who would better guide the economy as a whole, Romney leads, 48 percent to 45 percent.

Anti-Obama sentiment continues to be more intense than pro-Obama sentiment. For example, twice as many voters strongly disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy as those who strongly approve. On the budget and spending, it’s a nearly 3-to-1 ratio.

Romney, a former Bain Capital executive, has pitched himself as a turnaround specialist who can be a strong economic steward. The Obama campaign, trying to disqualify him in the eyes of voters, is working to define him as someone more concerned with creating wealth for himself and his rich friends than with creating jobs for everyday folks.

There are signs that effort is paying dividends and that many voters don’t believe Romney feels their pain. Obama has a 10-point edge, 50 percent to 40 percent, on the question of who “sharing your values.” Obama also has an advantage, 58 percent to 35 percent, on who stands up more for the middle class.

Obama’s 10-point edge on the “sharing your values” question is significant for the president because the issue has historically correlated closely to voter preference in the fall.

“For decades, the Democrats were at a disadvantage on ‘shares our values’ because it was more a moral dimension,” Lake said. “Now it seems to be more of an economic ‘in-touch-with-my-life-economically’ dimension. That allows the Democrats to be a lot more competitive on it.”

Those numbers help explain why the Romney campaign is trying to keep the election a referendum on Obama’s job performance as much as possible, focusing specifically on his stewardship of the economy. The high command in Boston realizes that the more the election is about Romney as the alternative, the harder it will be for him to win.

The unemployment rate, which dipped to 8.1 percent in April despite a tepid number of new jobs because people have stopped looking for work, plays a large role in how voters assess the nation’s economic health. When read a list of seven indicators, 46 percent identified “the number of Americans who have a job” as the best way to judge economic strength. One-sixth cited the best indicator of economic strength as their personal ability to pay bills and have some money left over. Only 5 percent named gas prices.

The president has a 13-point edge over Romney, 51 percent to 38 percent, on who is better equipped to handle foreign policy, an area that has been the GOP’s domain. The poll was in the field during intensive coverage of the one-year anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The president has a historically unusual 6-point edge over Romney on tax policy, but he must tread cautiously. Fifty percent disapprove of his handling of the issue.

While there is general support for high tax rates for millionaires, voters harbor deep suspicions about how Obama would spend the money. Seven in 10 said they want any additional revenue to help pay down the deficit, but 61 percent think the president would use it for increased domestic spending.

A good sign for Romney is that he performed just as well against Obama as a generic, unnamed Republican candidate. Coming out of the primaries, 56 percent of all voters approve of him on a personal level.

The president continues to maintain an impressive reservoir of goodwill among voters. Seventy percent have a positive personal impression of Obama. Only 25 percent disapprove of him personally. But among the one-quarter of voters who like Obama personally but don’t like the job he’s doing, 68 percent said they will vote to replace him.

The poll asked voters whether Romney’s membership in the Mormon Church will affect their vote. While 81 percent insisted it will make no difference, 16 percent acknowledged it makes them less likely to support him. This fits with other public polls.

The POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll of 1,000 likely voters was conducted from April 29 to May 3 by The Tarrance Group and Lake Research Partners. The nationwide telephone survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. For the first time, the poll included cellphone users. They make up a quarter of the sample.

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