Dan Balz
Dan Balz
The Take

Obama vs. Romney: A tight election from the start

By the count of one Democratic pollster, roughly 40 presidential election polls have been released in the past seven weeks — about one a day, with a day off every week. What do they tell us about November?

The most obvious is that the contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney is likely to be close and competitive from now until Election Day. Obama leads in most, but not all, of the polls released since Romney effectively won the Republican nomination a few weeks ago, but his position is anything but solid.

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In some polls, Obama’s lead is outside the margin of error, while in others it is not. In only a few is the president above 50 percent when pitted against Romney. The same holds for his overall approval rating: not consistently above 50 percent. Despite the water Romney took on during the primaries, he appears quite capable of making a real race of the general election. That is because economic issues continue to dominate the concerns of most voters.

To the extent that Obama has an advantage at this point when voters are asked to judge the two candidates, it is based largely on assessments of personal qualities. Both the Washington Post-ABC News poll of two weeks ago and the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released late last week underscore the degree to which majorities of Americans see Obama as more likable, more in touch with average people and more focused on the needs of middle-class voters.

Romney is competitive on the core issues, though where he is judged superior to the president, his lead is smaller than Obama’s is on personal qualities. Both polls found that a plurality of Americans believe Romney has better ideas for fixing the economy. The Post-ABC survey showed that Obama is judged to be slightly better than Romney on creating jobs and Romney is seen as better on the deficit. Consider it a jump ball as the debate begins.

The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found, by a small margin, that Americans say Romney is more likely than Obama to change business as usual in Washington. That reflects the toll that more than three years in the capital’s polarized environment has taken on the image of a president whose first campaign was built on a message that he would change the tone and culture of Washington. It underscores how differently the country sees the president and why 2012 is not in any way a rerun of 2008.

This is not a “yes, we can” country or election. Pessimism abounds — about the economy, about the direction of the country, about the ability of government to function. Voters resist offering optimistic assessments of the economic recovery. The polls are inadequate measures of Americans’ conflicting emotions and opinions about the state of the country and its political leaders.

Neither candidate inspires great confidence. Half the voters say Obama’s reelection would make them feel pessimistic or uncertain; an almost identical share say they would feel optimistic or hopeful. A majority say Romney’s election would make them pessimistic or uncertain.

Republicans and Democrats are falling into line behind their candidates. Romney has some ways to go to generate the kind of trust and confidence a nominee should command from his party, but the polls show mirror images of the two groups. Nearly 90 percent of Democrats and Republicans say they will vote for their party’s candidate.

Independents are making up their minds. Romney leads among the group in a number of the most recent polls, but independents appear far from settled on their choice. They have swung back and forth in elections since 2006. But the report from the latest Pew Research Center survey cautioned that there are fewer swing voters this year than in 2008 — roughly a quarter of all voters and a third of independents. That’s about on par with 2004, another year in which an incumbent was running for reelection.

Demographic fault lines appear similar to those of 2008, when Obama assembled a coalition that depended on minorities, young people, women and better-educated whites. Four years ago, minorities made up 26 percent of the electorate, the highest in history. That percentage could be larger this year because of population growth and changes in the composition of the population. That is a small built-in advantage for Obama, given his coalition.

The gender gap is one of the defining elements of this and past elections. Romney has a sizable deficit among women and runs even-to-better odds against Obama among men. The white women’s vote is not monolithic. Drilling down into the numbers shows the real contours of the election’s gender wars.

The Post-ABC survey showed sharp differences among white women based on marital status and education. The president led Romney among white women with college educations by 60 to 40 percent. But among white women without college degrees, Romney led, 50 to 41 percent. Similarly, Obama led by about 20 points among white women who are not married. Among white women who are married, Romney led by a margin almost as large.

Obama appears to have slipped among voters with lower incomes and less education. Obama advisers hope to make Romney unattractive to working-class voters, using his wealth against him. But the president continues to struggle with this part of the electorate, as he has done throughout his time on the national stage.

Romney has a major problem with Hispanic voters. He trails by about 40 points in both the NBC-Wall Street Journal and Pew surveys. That’s untenable and will require considerable attention by the presumptive GOP nominee. Obama won 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, to 31 percent for John McCain. In 2004, George W. Bush won just over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.

The general election has begun with talk of who was or wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, a Twitter war over a strategist’s comments and other catnip for the political class. The polls are a reminder that fundamentals are at the heart of this election and that both Obama and Romney have work left to do.

 
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