The 10 numbers that matter in the new Washington Post-ABC News poll

August 27, 2012

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, which was released this morning, is chock-full of fascinating and, at times, contradictory indicators about what people think of President Obama and Mitt Romney, the state of the country and where we are headed Nov. 6.


We've already written plenty about what's in the poll,  but there is SO MUCH in this data — days that we release polls are the Fix's own little Christmas — that we have 10 more takeaways from the survey below. You can check the whole thing out here; what question grabbed you most?

1. What enthusiasm gap?:  For all the talk that Republicans are more fired up and ready to go than Democrats, there's no evidence of any enthusiasm difference between the two candidates' supporters. Eighty-five percent of registered voters supporting Obama say they are doing so enthusiastically, while 83 percent of Romney supporters say the same of their guy. Even deeper into the numbers the story is the same: 45 percent of Obama backers are "very" enthusiastically supporting him while 42 percent of Romney backers are "very" enthusiastically behind him.

2. The Obama economy gap: Overall, a majority — albeit just 50 percent — of registered voters approve of President Obama while 47 percent disapprove. But when it comes to Obama's approval ratings on the economy, the story is markedly different, with just 44 percent of registered voters approving and 54 percent disapproving. What those numbers make clear is that the economy is dragging down Obama's overall job approval in a major way.

3. A very wrong track: Two thirds of the sample said the country is headed off on the wrong track, while just 31 percent think it is headed in the right direction.  That's nothing new. Not since January 2009 have less than 60 percent of people in Post-ABC polling said that the country is headed on the wrong track.  That sort of widespread — and sustained — pessimism makes it tough for Obama to make the case that things are getting better slowly but surely.

4. Obama the likable: In a poll filled with close findings between Romney and Obama, one place where the race isn't close at all is on the question of likability.  Sixty-one percent of registered voters said Obama is the more "likable" and "friendly" person, while just 27 percent said that of Romney.  We have long held that presidential elections are less about issues than they are about how people perceive the two candidates in terms of who better understands their hopes and anxieties. If that holds, then this likability gap is big news indeed for Obama. But there's also the possibility that the economy is such a big issue for voters that it blots out the traditional ways we think about presidential races.

5. Economic distress: Speaking of economic anxiety, 84 percent of those polled said the current state of the economy is either "not so good" (39 percent) or "poor" (45 percent) as compared to just 15 percent who said it was either "good" (14 percent) or "excellent" (1 percent).  Eighty-four percent of people agree on almost nothing these days.  But they do seem to agree that the economy stinks.

6. Blame Bush: A majority of Americans (54 percent) still believe former President George W. Bush is mainly responsible for the current state of the economy, while 32 percent said the economy is mostly President Obama's doing.  While Obama won't spend too much time directly blaming Bush — that would/will open him up to attacks that he is looking backward rather than forward — the numbers provide an important backdrop for the economic argument Obama is trying to make to voters.  To win, Obama has to convince wavering voters that he inherited a mess and did what he could to make it better. To sell that argument, he needs people to believe that Bush left him (and the country) in an economic lurch.

7. Small government > big government: In the decades-long fight over how much government is enough/too much, the forces of small(er) government seem to have won out — at least for the moment. Fifty-six percent of people said they favored smaller government and less services while 38 percent said they preferred a larger government with more services. Those numbers are particularly important given that a part of Obama's 2008 campaign was premised on the idea that government was necessary and could be a good thing — something people felt acutely after the Bush administration's (mis)handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

8.  VP? Eh.: Seven in 10 respondents said that Romney's choice of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential nominee made no difference in their likelihood of supporting the former Massachusetts governor. (Fourteen percent said it made them more likely to support Romney and 14 percent said it made them less likely to back him.) Those numbers were broadly consistent with the relatively small ripples that past VP picks have made. Sixty-six percent said Obama's pick of Joe Biden as VP didn't influence their vote in a September 2008 Post-ABC poll, for example. One notable exception was — you guessed it! — Sarah Palin. While in the immediate aftermath of her selection as John McCain's vice presidential nominee 55 percent of people said it made no difference in their vote, by November 2008, 44 percent said it made them less likely to back the Arizona senator, while 38 percent said she made no difference in their decision. Ryan doesn't appear to be on anything close to that trajectory.

9. Tax return story overblown?: While Democrats continue to bang away at Romney's refusal to release more than two years of his taxes, there is no clear consensus in the electorate that suggests a desire for more details on the Republican's financial past. Forty-six percent of people said Romney has released enough information about his tax returns, while 40 percent said he needs to release more. Given those numbers, it seems unlikely that Romney will reverse course on his pledge not to make public any more than his 2010 and 2011 returns.

10. Obama the default winner: While the horse race is a dead heat — 47 percent Romney, 46 percent Obama — when people are asked who they think will win, the incumbent has a massive edge.  Fifty-nine percent said Obama will win as compared to just 34 percent who named Romney. You can argue this two ways. On the one hand, the incumbent president is likely to be seen as the de facto winner until the challenger passes a sort of invisible threshold in voters' minds that typically comes later in the fall. On the other hand, human nature dictates that we like to be with the winner, so if undecided voters think Obama's that guy, maybe they swing his way.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · August 27, 2012