A pair of tepid jobs reports, landmark Supreme Court decisions on health-care and immigration laws, and an unprecedented barrage of negative ads have shaped the opening months of the fall presidential campaign. The impact on the horse race: virtually none.
According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney remain in a deadlocked contest, tied at 47 percent among registered voters and basically where they stood in late May.
The new numbers reflect a stubborn constancy: Only twice in 13 surveys over more than a year has either candidate held a lead exceeding the poll’s margin of sampling error. Now, the campaign appears destined to remain extremely close in the remaining four months before Election Day.
The fundamentals seem firmly planted: About two-thirds of Americans consider the country seriously off course, a majority have not approved of Obama’s overall job performance in more than a year, and the president remains in negative territory on dealing with the economy, health care and immigration. Also unmoved since fall are Americans’ attitudes toward spending, with as many saying they would prefer an increase in federal spending to try to spur economic growth as wanting to prioritize deficit reduction.
The stability persists despite the costliest blitz of early campaign advertising the country has ever seen. Both sides have run some positive ads, but the Obama team and its allies have relentlessly attacked Romney’s experience at Bain Capital, an investment firm the Republican co-founded, in its paid spots. Romney and his supporters, meanwhile, have focused a considerable portion of spending on Obama’s economic record.
The lack of movement underscores intense polarization - about nine in 10 Republicans back Romney, and a similar proportion of Democrats support Obama - and a relatively small percentage of voters say there is a "good chance" that they could change their minds before November.
At this point, 74 percent of all voters are "definitely" supporting Obama or Romney, and 12 percent say it is unlikely that they will switch from one to the other, making the race a settled issue for nearly nine in 10 voters. For both campaigns, such a high level of early commitment shifts the focus to turnout - and to which side can muster the most effective get-out-the-vote operation.
Obama still benefits from a clear, but dwindling, enthusiasm gap. Just over half, 51 percent, of his supporters back his candidacy "very enthusiastically," compared with 38 percent of Romney’s. There is also a difference in motivation, with 75 percent of Obama supporters saying their vote is "for" him, in contrast with 59 percent of Romney’s backers saying their vote is "against" Obama. (There was a similar distinction in 2004, with President George W. Bush’s supporters affirmatively behind him, and most of Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry’s aligned in opposition to the Republican.)
Romney’s business background has been a focus of the ads against him - and the spots have had some results. Compared with February, more people in the eight states identified as "tossups" by The Washington Post now say Romney did more to cut than create jobs in the United States when he worked as a corporate investor before entering politics. And twice as many swing-state voters consider Romney’s work in buying and restructuring companies a reason to oppose, rather than to support, his candidacy. Just over half of all voters say that work is not a big factor for them.
Voters in these swing states - all of which Obama won in 2008 - divide down the middle on whether their vote will be more about what the president has done in his first term or what they think he would do if re-elected. That distinction makes a pivotal difference: Nationwide, political independents focused on a prospective second-term side with Obama over Romney, but those assessing Obama’s first term prefer Romney by more than 20 percentage points.
The challenge for the president may be trying to turn attention away from a stubbornly negative take on his performance. His overall rating hasn’t budged since May, with 47 percent of Americans approving and 49 percent disapproving, hardly the split an incumbent would hope to see when facing re-election. Intensity continues to run against him, with more people strongly disapproving of his work than strongly approving.
On the campaign’s top issue, the economy, 54 percent of all adults and 60 percent of independents give Obama negative marks. But when measured against Romney on the economy, voters divide about evenly, with 48 percent saying they trust the former Massachusetts governor and 45 percent saying they have more faith in the president. Obama has a 12-point advantage on the question of which candidate has a clearer plan to deal with the country’s economic woes.
Obama’s biggest counterweight to the economic drag on his candidacy continues to be double-digit advantages among registered voters on important attributes. He has a clear lead over Romney on who has greater empathy for people facing economic problems, and on standing up for his beliefs. On appearing "more friendly and likable," Obama maintains an advantage of better than 2 to 1.
Even one-third of voters backing Romney consider the president to be the more likable of the two.
Americans split evenly on the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision upholding Obama’s health-care law, with 42 percent approving of the decision and 44 percent opposing it. But in a significant change, the legislation now has as many supporters as opponents. In April, 39 percent opposed it and 53 percent backed it; after the ruling it is even-up at 47 percent on each side.
House Republicans will vote again this week on a measure to repeal the health-care law. In the poll, just one-third of all Americans favor repealing the legislation in its entirety or in part. At the same time, thirty-eight percent of Americans consider Romney’s support for repeal a major reason to vote for him, compared with 29 percent who say it is a major reason to vote against him.
Although the race remains close, Obama’s supporters are significantly more confident about the outcome. Nearly all voters who want the president to prevail say they expect him to win, whereas most, but far fewer, of Romney’s backers think he will win.
The telephone poll was conducted July 5 to 8 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points for the full sample as well as the sample of 855 registered voters.
Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.