The Washington Post

Obama holds key leads against Romney, as economy malaise looms over bid

With the general-election campaign beginning to take shape, President Obama holds clear advantages over Mitt Romney on personal attributes and a number of key issues, but remains vulnerable to discontent with the pace of the economic recovery, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Obama has double-digit leads over the likely Republican presidential nominee on who would do a better job of protecting the middle class, addressing women’s issues, handling international affairs and dealing with health care.

On personal traits, the president’s edge is even bigger: He has a better than 2-to-1 advantage as the more friendly and likable of the two, and nearly that margin as “more inspiring.”

Romney faces a huge deficit among female voters, one that more than negates his advantage among men and represents one of the biggest challenges he and his advisers face as they turn toward the November election. Obama’s edge among women gives him a clear lead among all registered voters in a matchup with Romney.

But on the two most pressing issues of the campaign — the economy and jobs — the contest is considerably more competitive, with about as many trusting Romney on the issues as Obama. Despite positive economic indicators, Americans remain deeply pessimistic about the overall direction of the country and largely consider the economy still mired in a recession. The Romney campaign is hoping to take advantage by making the contest about Obama’s performance on these key concerns.

Obama’s overall approval rating stands at 50 percent, but he draws negative marks on how he has dealt with the economy and the recent increase in gasoline prices. Nearly half of all Americans say his handling of the economy is a major reason to oppose his reelection; far fewer see it as a big reason to support his bid.

Romney holds a double-digit lead over Obama on just one issue tested in the poll: who would better deal with the federal budget deficit.

In the Republican primary race, Romney holds a commanding lead over his rivals — former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.).

Conducted after Romney’s wins last week in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia, the poll shows 44 percent of Republican and GOP-leaning independent voters saying they would like Romney to be the nominee and 25 percent choosing Santorum, with the others well behind.

In what may be a sign that Republicans are accepting that Romney is likely to be the nominee, a majority of those backing one of his rivals prefer Romney to a late entrant into the race.

Nonetheless, a slim majority of all Republicans and GOP-leaning independents say Santorum, who has been the surprise challenger, should keep running. Much of that support comes from evangelical Christians, who have been his most significant backers through the primary contests. In contrast, sizable majorities say Gingrich and Paul should quit the race.

Most Republicans think Romney has been strengthened for the general election by the nomination contest, but pluralities of Democrats and independents say the opposite.

If a Romney-Obama matchup were held today, registered voters would divide 51 percent for the president to 44 percent for the former Massachusetts governor. That is similar to the edge Obama held in a Post-ABC poll in February; the two were more evenly matched in March.

A wide gender gap underlies the current state of the race. Romney is up eight percentage points among male voters but trails by 19 among women. Among independent voters, one of the most watched groups in the electorate, the two men are closely paired, with 48 percent supporting Romney and 46 percent backing Obama.

In addition to his big lead among women — Obama won that demographic by 13 points in 2008 — the president is moving to secure other key elements of his winning coalition. As he did four years ago, he has overwhelming support from African Americans — 90 percent back his reelection effort — and he has a big lead among those ages 18 to 29. As ever, one issue will be how many of these young adults register to vote and turn out.

Obama continues to trail Romney by a big margin among white voters without college degrees, and he loses white men with college degrees by double digits, 57 to 39 percent. He counters with a big lead over Romney among white women who have a college degree or more education.

Obama has argued that the economy is recovering, if slowly, but pessimism remains pervasive nearly four years after the economic collapse. An overwhelming majority of Americans — 76 percent — say the economy is still in recession, an assessment that is shared across partisan, ideological, racial, income and gender lines.

Moreover, as many Americans say their local economy is not even starting to get better as say the situation is improving.

The cost of gas continues to sting: More than six in 10 call rising pump prices a financial hardship, with a similar proportion disapproving of how Obama is handling the matter. Although fewer blame the Obama administration for gas prices than single out U.S. oil companies or other oil-producing countries, the issue adds to Romney’s opening to mount an economic challenge to Obama in the fall campaign.

So far, Romney has not convinced Americans that he better understands the economic problems they are facing; Obama has a 12-point lead on this question. As in January, more Americans consider unfairness in the economic system a bigger problem than over-regulation interfering with growth and prosperity.

This poll was conducted April 5 to 8 among a random national sample of 1,103 adults. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill and polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.

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