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WaPo-ABC tracking poll: Presidential contest as close as close can be

The race for the White House remains steadily and extraordinarily competitive in its final days, with President Obama and Mitt Romney continuing to run neck-and-neck in the Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll.

In the latest release, 49 percent of likely voters across the country back Obama, 48 percent his Republican challenger. It’s an identical 49 to 48 percent looking across eight states identified as “tossups” by The Washington Post.

There are few ways to adequately grasp the tightness of the contest.

Nationally, in 10 out of 11 releases of the tracking poll, the two presidential contenders have been separated by no more than a single percentage point. Seven times the gap between the two has been less than 1 percent, when looking at the fractional differences.

Of course, no poll, however well conducted, offers decimal-point-level precision, but the closeness is exceptional. In addition to two numerical ties across the tracking poll, on two other occasions, including this release, there was less than 10/100th of a percentage point of difference. What today rounds to 49 to 48 percent is really 48.56 for Obama and 48.49 for Romney. The margin of sampling error for the current four-day average is plus or minus three percentage points (full ones, not hundredths!)

This is a close race.

Romney and Obama are also at tight parity once again when it comes to whom voters trust to deal with the nation’s still struggling economy: 49 percent put more faith in Romney, 47 percent in Obama. One reason neither has a significant lead here is that only about one in five voters are “very confident” the economy will quickly improve, regardless of who wins the presidency.

The Republican does, however, have the edge overall on the confidence question: 54 percent of likely voters are at least “somewhat confident” the country will get back on track economically in the next year or two were the Republican to prevail next week. Fewer, 47 percent, are so confident in a recovery in a second Obama term. And more express “no confidence at all” in a speedy recovery with another four years for Obama than a Romney administration (36 to 27 percent).

The president continues to have a solid pushback to Republicans on the economy. By a 15-point margin (51 to 36 percent), more voters say George W. Bush bears more responsibility than does Obama for current economic problems. But there’s less of an apparent gap in the eight tossup states -- Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin -- where 47 percent point the finger at Bush, 42 percent at Obama.

Both campaigns have focused their resources in these states, although in recent days the competitive landscape may have expanded. Fully 39 percent of all voters in these states say they heard this week from a representative of the Obama campaign asking for their support; 33 percent say they have heard from Romney’s side over the past seven days.

The Obama and Romney campaigns have also both prioritized early voting, particularly in key states, and 26 percent of all likely voters in these eight states say they have already cast their ballots. The election in these states may hinge on whether Obama’s advantage among early voters outweighs Romney’s with Election Day voters, or vice versa.

Looking across all waves of the tracking poll, swing state likely voters who said they had already voted or planned to cast early ballots break for Obama, 57 to 42 percent; those who said they would wait until Tuesday side with Romney, 54 to 43 percent.

Beyond the frenetic finish in the political contest, Obama got another round of high praise for his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in Wednesday interviews. Overall, 79 percent of likely voters now give the president “excellent” or “good” marks for his response to the situation. Majorities across party lines agree on this score: 86 percent of Democrats, 81 percent of independents and 69 percent of Republicans offer positive ratings here.

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. 28-31, among a random sample of 1,293 likely voters.