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Post-ABC tracking poll: Romney 50 percent, Obama 47

Republican Mitt Romney has edged ahead of President Obama in the new Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll, with the challenger winning 50 percent of likely voters for the first time in the campaign.

As Romney hits 50, the president stands at 47 percent, his lowest tally in Post-ABC polling since before the national party conventions. A three-point edge gives Romney his first apparent advantage in the national popular vote, but it is not one that is statistically significant with a conventional level of 95 percent confidence.

Results from the tracking poll were first released Monday evening, and had Obama at 49 percent, and Romney at 48. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the results were flipped, with Romney at 49 and the president at 48. All of the results are among likely voters.

However, Romney does now boast a statistically -- and substantively -- important lead on the economy, which has long been the central issue of the race. When it comes to handling the nation’s struggling economy, 52 percent of likely voters say they trust Romney more, while 43 percent say they have more faith in the president.

And just as the challenger has leaped ahead on this score, he has effectively neutralized what has been a consistent fall-back for Obama: economic empathy. In the new poll, 48 percent say Obama is more in tune with the economic problems people are having, and nearly as many, 46 percent, say Romney is the one who is more in touch. Just two weeks ago, Obama had a nine-point lead on the question.

The two candidates also run about evenly on the question of handling “international affairs,” little difference from where they were heading into Monday’s debate on foreign policy.

Romney’s improvements on the economy -- and on empathizing with the plight of those struggling financially -- has been fueled by gains among political independents. Independents now side with Romney by campaign highs on both the economy (61 to 34 percent) and on understanding people’s problems (52 to 42 percent).

These advantages with independents undergird a sizable, 19 percentage-point Romney lead over Obama on the horse race. Should that advantage stick, it would be the sharpest tilt among independents in a  presidential election since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide win. (Reagan won independent and other unaffiliated voters 63 to 36 percent, according to the exit poll). Obama won them by eight in 2008.

Obama was set to cast his own presidential ballot Thursday, joining a growing number of voters for whom the election is over. In the new data, 8 percent of likely voters -- rising to 14 percent in swing states -- say they’ve already voted. Another 29 percent of likely voters say they plan to cast ballots early or by mail. In 2008, 31 percent of all voters cast early ballots, a record high.

A slender, but slipping majority of likely voters say that when all is said and done, Obama will prevail, and win a second term. But 40 percent now anticipate a Romney win, up from 32 percent just before the first debate in late September. Since that time, Romney supporters have become more confident -- 76 percent think he’ll win, up from a low of 67 in that late September poll; Obama’s backers are still overwhelmingly confident, 92 percent think their guy will win.

The Post-ABC tracking poll is a series of consecutive one-night “waves” of interviews reported as a rolling, multi-night average. The new results are for interviews conducted Oct. 21-24, among a random sample of 1,386 likely voters. Two of the four nights reported here include interviews conducted entirely after Monday’s debate in Boca Raton.

Results for this sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Question wording, results and methodology available here.