Most likely voters -- including both Democrats and Republicans -- say the winner of the presidential election should be decided by popular vote, not the electoral college, according to the latest release of the Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll.

In the new national poll, 49 percent of likely voters back Republican Mitt Romney, while 48 percent support President Obama. It’s the fifth straight day that a single percentage point (or less) has separated the two candidates.

The presidency, of course, will be decided at the state level -- with the overwhelming focus on a small set of swing states where polls also point to an extraordinarily competitive contest next week. But most voters wish that weren’t so: 56 percent of all likely voters say they would prefer the one who gets the most votes across the country to be the next president; 37 percent would want the one with more electoral votes to prevail.

A split verdict between the national vote and the electoral college has become a distinct possibility given the close competitiveness of candidates at both levels. If such a divided result were to happen, 59 percent of independents, 56 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans say they would prefer that the candidate with the higher popular vote tally win the White House.

Before the presidential election in 2000, majorities of Democrats and Republicans alike said they preferred the popular vote. But four years later, support for the popular vote had risen higher still, and GOP support had plummeted, going from 66 percent in 2000 to 35 percent just before the 2004 election. The obvious intervening event were the results of the contest in 2000: a slender popular vote win for Democrat Al Gore, but an electoral win for George W. Bush.

Since 2004, Republican support for the popular vote has gone back up, alongside the odds that their candidate might prevail on this measure, but not the other. Conversely, Democratic support for the popular vote has slid from a high point before the 2004 election.

Clearly, the closeness of the contest at the national and state levels has shifted the calculus here, even as there is no question how the winner of this election will be decided. Within days of Gore’s concession in 2000 after the final divided Supreme Court verdict became apparent, support for shifting the system to the popular vote went up among Democrats, and dropped 10 points among Republicans.

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. 26-29, among a random sample of 1,271 likely voters. Out of a national sample of likely voters, 51 were interviewed Monday in the Northeast, a typical number for the region, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy.

Fully 86 percent of Monday interviews in the Northeast were completed by 6:30 p.m., and all by 7:25 p.m.. The storm made landfall at 8 p.m. While the sample is small, data from Monday interviews in the Northeast are similar to those from previous nights in the region.

The competitiveness of the national contest again extends well beyond the baseline vote question. Asked which candidate better understands their “personal values,” 49 percent say Obama, 47 percent Romney. And on two measures asked throughout the tracking poll -- trust to handle the economy and economic empathy, the differences between the two hover around the poll’s margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The latest track has the smallest gender gap of the campaign, with men divided 51 percent for Romney and 46 percent for Obama, and women splitting 50 percent for the president and 48 percent for his challenger. This is the first time in the tracking poll where Obama didn’t have at least one night with a double-digit advantage among female voters.

Also narrowing marginally in this release is the distance between the two candidates among political independents, who now go 52 percent for Romney and 45 percent for Obama. Romney’s seven-point edge here is smaller than it has been in a week.