(NEW YORK) — Economic discontent and substantial dissatisfaction with President Obama’s performance in office are keeping Mitt Romney competitive in the presidential race, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, but not by enough of a margin to overcome Obama’s stronger personal profile. The result: A dead heat in voter preferences at the midsummer stage, with the prospect of an epic battle ahead.
While most Americans continue to disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy, that’s not his only problem. More than half fault him on health care and immigration as well. Sixty-three percent say the country’s headed in the wrong direction, an unhelpful view for an incumbent. And among groups, he’s losing swing-voting independents by a record 14 percentage points.
Yet Romney faces significant challenges of his own. His supporters are more apt to be against Obama than explicitly for Romney — a “negative” vote that can be less compelling than an affirmative one. His supporters are less strongly enthusiastic than Obama’s. While Obama is vulnerable on the economy, Romney is weakly rated on having offered a clear economic plan. And Obama leads on a range of personal attributes — empathy, standing up for his beliefs and, especially, basic likeability.
Obama also continues to prevail in expectations: Despite his troubles, this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds that Americans by 58-34 percent expect him ultimately to defeat Romney and win a second term. That’s Obama’s best on this gauge to date — a sharp difference from last October, when, with economic discontent at a higher pitch, 55 percent thought Obama would lose. Today, even among Romney’s supporters, a quarter think Obama will win.
With a 47-47 percent Obama-Romney contest among registered voters, the overall results point to a sharply defined race: On one hand Obama, the more personally popular candidate, with a larger and more energized partisan base, yet weak performance scores; on the other Romney, his opportunities to capitalize on Obama’s vulnerabilities complicated by his difficulties in capturing the public’s imagination.
Helpful to Obama, given the economy, is the fact that in deciding their vote, Americans by 51-33 percent are focused more on what he’d do in his second term as president than on what he’s done in his first. Among registered voters who are more concerned about what Obama’s done so far, Romney leads by 18 points, 55-37 percent. Among those more focused on what he’d do if elected to a second term, by contrast, Obama leads by 59-36 percent, a 23-point margin. It marks why he’s trying to point ahead (“Forward” is the campaign slogan), and why Romney is looking back.
But there’s room to move: One in five of Romney’s current supporters, and one in six of Obama’s, say there’s a chance they could change their mind and support the other candidate. Very few, though, say there’s a “good chance” they could shift — a mere 4 percent of Obama’s supporters, 8 percent of Romney’s.
That suggests that more than changing minds, the contest likely is to be about motivating turnout, and here Obama has an edge. Among registered voters, half of his supporters (51 percent) are “very” enthusiastic, vs. 38 percent of Romney’s.
It can matter: Strong enthusiasm is a measure on which Obama crushed John McCain in 2008, and on which George W. Bush beat John Kerry in 2004. Still, while lagging, Romney’s strong enthusiasm has improved by a dozen points since spring.
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