The new Washington Post-ABC News poll is out -- and not a minute too soon with the political world going eerily quiet as both candidates prepare for Wednesday night's debate.
The topline numbers in the poll -- President Obama takes 49 percent to 47 percent for Mitt Romney among likely voters nationally but has a 12-point edge among likelies in swing states -- are getting plenty of attention but, as always, the Fix likes to dig deeper into the numbers for a few lesser-noticed takeaways from the data.
Eight of our initial takeaways after perusing the full questionnaire are below. You can check all the data out yourself here.
1. The more things change...: The last three weeks have been filled with bad news for the Romney campaign. And yet, at least at the national level, almost nothing has changed. In a Sept. 9 Post-ABC poll of likely voters, Obama took 49 percent to 48 percent for Romney; in the new Post-ABC survey it's 49 percent Obama, 47 percent Romney. Statistically speaking, nothing changed between those two polls despite Romney's "47 percent" controversy and a strong Democratic convention. Now, there's other evidence in the data that suggest slippage for Romney -- most notably the gap in swing states -- but, at least in the national horse race, the race didn't change as much as everyone thought it did.
2. Obama's economy problem (still): Forty seven percent of people approve of the way President Obama has handled the economy while 52 percent disapprove. While those numbers are better than where he was in an early September poll (45% approve/53% disapprove), they still aren't good. And, the intensity is all on the side of those who disapprove of what Obama has done with the economy; 41 percent strongly disapprove of the job he has done while just 23 percent strongly approve.
3. A move toward national optimism: As we have seen in a few recent national polls, the Post-ABC poll now shows an appreciable movement toward those willing to say the country is lurching in the right direction. Thirty eight percent said things are now going in the right direction, the highest that number has been in Post-ABC polling since January 2011. In just the last month, the "right direction" number has jumped nine points. It's not immediately clear why people are suddenly feeling better about the country's path -- the economic indicators remain mixed -- but there is now enough data from enough different sources to conclude there is some clear movement toward optimism.
4. The massive likability gap: In an election full of tight margins, Obama continues to hold a massive edge over Romney on the question of who is the "more friendly and likable person". Sixty-two percent named Obama while 29 percent chose Romney, a massive 33-point gap that Romney has been unable to diminish even with a convention that was designed to soften the image of him as a ruthless businessman. At issue is how much the likability question will matter to voting behavior. We are of the belief that people vote for president less on issues than on their sense of whether a candidate "gets" them. If that's true, then the likability gap is meaningful. But, there is also an argument to be made that in difficult economic times like these, who you like as a candidate is less important than who you think can get the job done.
5. An overregulation boomlet?: The broader context of this race -- as it has been in every race since the early 1990s (at least) -- is over how much government is enough and what, exactly, should the government do (and what shouldn't it). That's what makes the Post-ABC question on whether the bigger problem facing the country is "unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy" or "overregulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity" so interesting. In the latest numbers, 42 percent said overregulation was the bigger problem -- the highest that number has been since we started asking the question in January. And, for the first time since January, less than a majority (49 percent) said that unfairness in the economic system was the bigger problem. It's one poll question amid a sea of data but an interesting one in the ongoing debate over when/how/where people want government.
6. Romney's wealth isn't an issue: Perhaps the most surprising finding in the Post-ABC poll is that a majority of voters now see Romney's wealth as a good thing. Fifty one percent said Romney's financial stature is a "positive because it suggests he has achieved the American dream" while 42 percent said it was a "negative because he benefited from opportunities that are not available to most people." That's a major shift from a February Post-ABC poll when 43 percent saw Romney's wealth as a positive and 46 percent saw it in a negative light. The findings also suggest that if Romney had embraced the idea of his wealth earlier -- and more publicly -- he might not have spent the last six months playing defense on it.
7. Obama as heavy debate favorite...: Almost six in ten (56 percent) of respondents said they expect the incumbent will emerge as the winner of the three presidential debates this month while just 29 percent said Romney would be victorious. What those numbers mean is that if Romney is able to string a few sentences together and generally look as though he belong on stage with Obama, he will get a bit of a bump from the general electorate. And/but...
8. ...Obama as heavy general election favorite: The narrowness of the horse race in the Post-ABC poll is contrasted with the fact that 63 percent of registered voters believe Obama will win the election while just 31 percent think Romney will be the next president of the United States. We explored this phenomenon in a recent column but, in short, the expectation that Obama will win should benefit the incumbent; people like to be with a winner and the more he looks like one, the more likely he is to get those handful of people who haven't made up their minds yet.