By: James Hohmann
October 8, 2012 05:01 AM EDT
ORLANDO, Fla. — President Barack Obama has a worsening enthusiasm problem.
A new POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Tracking Poll of likely voters shows Obama ahead of Mitt Romney 49 percent to 48 percent nationally, a statistical tie and a percentage point closer than a week ago.
The head-to-head numbers have held remarkably steady through the past three weeks, but there’s been a notable shift of intensity from the Democrats to the Republicans since the party conventions over a month ago. Most of the poll’s calls were made before Romney’s strong performance at the first presidential debate in Denver.
Only 73 percent who support Obama say they are “extremely likely” to vote, compared to 86 percent who back Romney. Likewise, 84 percent of Republicans say they are extremely likely to vote, compared to 76 percent of Democrats.
Among those extremely likely to vote, Romney actually leads Obama 52 percent to 46 percent. That’s up from a 2-point lead last week. Obama led 50 percent to 47 percent among this group three weeks ago.
The Battleground tracking poll will be performed each week and the results released each Monday through Election Day. This poll was in the field last Monday through Thursday, but about 85 percent of the calls were made before the debate on Wednesday night. The final night of tracking was good for Romney, but it’s not a big enough sample to report. So this does not reflect any momentum Romney might get from his performance in Denver.
The percentages among key Democratic constituencies who say they are extremely likely to vote should cause concern in Chicago: While 82 percent of whites (who break for Romney by a 15-point margin) say they’re “extremely likely” to vote, only 71 percent of African-Americans and 70 percent of Latinos do. And just 68 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds, another key Obama constituency, put themselves in the “extremely likely” to vote category.
The electorate is deeply divided and polarized, which makes 2012 look increasingly like a base election. Whoever runs up their vote count among their core supporters is likely to prevail, which is why these numbers are so significant.
A more energized base frees up Romney to focus more of his energy on wooing independents and others unhappy with the president but not currently supporting him.
The trend lines suggest that Obama will be forced to devote more time than he’d like in the final weeks toward motivating African-Americans, Latinos and college kids.
“The campaign is juggling the challenge of getting the last persuadable voters and motivating the base,” said Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster who helped conduct the poll.
“I think it’s off to the races,” said Republican pollster Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group, who helped conduct the bipartisan poll.
Part of the problem for Obama is that twice as many voters expect him to win. Regardless of who they’re supporting, 61 percent of those who replied to the poll said they think Obama will eventually prevail compared to 31 percent who said the same for Romney. This could dampen Democratic turnout, so it’s actually good for Obama that Romney’s debate performance will likely narrow this expectations gap.
Romney now leads among independents by 16 points, 51 percent to 35 percent. This is up from 4 points last week. But he still trails in the overall head-to-head numbers because of near monolithic support for Obama among minority Democrats.
Romney is also finally benefiting from revelations about the Obama administration mishandling its response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. Obama’s lead over Romney on who is better able to handle foreign policy shrank from 12 points to 6 points last week.
Obama’s overall job approval stands at 50 percent, with 48 percent disapproving. The president’s personal favorability is 52 percent, with 45 percent viewing him unfavorably.
Romney is no longer underwater on likability, with an identical 47 percent viewing him favorably and unfavorably.
But he has a continuing problem with women, among whom Obama leads by 13 points, 55 percent to 42 percent. Asked about Romney as a person, 51 percent of women say they have an unfavorable impression.
“Romney did improve his favorability a little bit, but he’s still got major problems in the battleground states and with women,” said Lake.
The good news for Obama is that 46 percent are firmly committed to supporting him, while only 41 percent are firm that they will vote to replace him. Nine percent say they’ll consider someone else.
The bad news for the incumbent is that he faces an undercurrent of strongly negative feelings that will keep Republicans animated.
Among all likely voters, 54 percent say the country is on the wrong track, and twice as many feel strongly that the country is headed on the wrong track as strongly think it’s moving in the right direction.
While about the same number of respondents feel strongly positive as strongly negative about the overall job Obama is doing, twice as many strongly disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy as approve and over twice as many people strongly disapprove of Obama’s handling of spending and the budget for every person who strongly approves.
“Those things are kind of sitting there,” said Goeas. “There’s a solid wall that [Obama’s] hitting that he’s going to knock against.”
Goeas notes that Obama has been outspending Romney in the battleground states, and he predicts Romney will gain as his ad buys reach parity and the debate sinks in.
Romney spent most of Saturday at the Hilton here preparing for next week’s debate in New York. Ann Romney made a surprise visit to an Orlando victory center to greet Republican volunteers.
Both Romneys look notably more confident in the wake of the Denver debate, and they drew some of their largest crowds of the campaign at Florida rallies on a three-day swing across the Sunshine State this past weekend.
One of the strongest drivers of the vote right now is who voters think would better handle the economy. If someone thinks Romney is better at creating jobs, for example, they are almost certain to support Romney. Romney has maintained a slight advantage on which of the two candidates is best equipped to handle the economy — 49 percent to 47 percent — and widened his edge on who is best to create jobs — 49 percent to 46 percent. A slight majority, 53 percent, disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy.
Just over two-thirds of voters name pocketbook issues as their top concern. Among them, Romney now leads, 53 percent to 43 percent.
“If I were the Obama campaign, it’s the most worrisome number I would look at,” said Goeas. “This election is going to be about the economy, period,”
Obama has a significant advantage over Romney among voters who name the most important issues in the race as national security, education and Medicare.
Asked who is better on Medicare, Obama maintained an 8-point edge. But Romney continues to lead handily among seniors.
Romney continues to trail — by 16 points, 56 percent to 40 percent — on the question of who fights harder for the middle class. The poll was in the field before Romney apologized Thursday night on Fox News for his “47 percent” comments, but the fallout continues as Obama advertises heavily on the footage caught by a hidden camera at a Florida fundraiser.
Obama also expanded his edge on which candidate has a better tax plan from 3 points to 6 points. Romney has begun relentlessly attacking the president for planning to increase taxes if he’s elected. The Republican nominee historically holds the edge on this issue, and Romney’s campaign said the candidate will emphasize this issue more in coming days.
The POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground poll, conducted by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research Partners, surveyed 1,000 registered likely voters from Oct. 1 to Oct. 4 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.