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5 things the early polls tell us about the Obama-Romney matchup

April 20, 2012|By Michael A. Memoli
  • The White House scene as President Obama welcomed the BCS national champion football team from the University of Alabama.
The White House scene as President Obama welcomed the BCS national champion… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

The unofficial start of the general-election campaign a week ago triggered a deluge of public polling on the President Obama-Mitt Romney matchup as quickly as research firms could crunch the data. Ten major outlets have now reported numbers. So what do we know so far?

For starters, you may not be surprised to learn that it's expected to be a close race. The top-line numbers -- that is, the head-to-head matchup between the Democratic incumbent and his likely GOP challenger -- range from a 9-point lead for Obama (CNN/Opinion Research Corporation) to a 5-point advantage for Romney (Gallup).

The latest poll of the bunch, from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, puts Obama ahead, 49% to 43%. A composite of recent polls from Real Clear Politics gives Obama, on average, a nearly 3-point lead.

Those early top-line numbers are getting most of the attention, but at this stage the campaigns are more interested in what the deeper data show. And though each survey has a different overall result, there are areas of consensus among them that point to the candidates' main strengths and weaknesses, and the nature of the November electorate.

1. Republicans are rallying ... slowly: Given how many Republican candidates laid claim to the front-runner mantle at various points of the primary battle, it is noteworthy that the party's base seems to be quickly accepting the fact that Romney is the one they must support if they are to defeat Obama.

A Pew Research Center poll showed that 88% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters say they will support Romney this fall. Despite conventional wisdom that suggested Romney was weakest among the more conservative elements of the party, Pew found that they were more likely to be certain of their support for him now, with 82% indicating support, compared to only 66% of moderate and liberal Republicans who were certain.

A CBS/New York Times poll found that 54% of Republican primary voters now say they want Romney to lead them into the fall campaign -- not an overwhelming majority, but a significant jump from a March poll that found only 30% felt that way then.

Romney's favorability rating, still historically low for a major-party nominee at this time, is nonetheless improving now that Republicans' internal sniping is subsiding. Among all voters, CNN's poll showed his personal favorability rating jumped from 37% in March to 44% in April. A Washington Post/ABC News poll saw less of a bounce so far, though, with his rating still at just 35%.

What's really motivating Republicans is their hostility to Obama. According to the CNN poll, among registered general-election voters who said they would support Romney, 63% said their vote was one against Obama while 35% said it was a vote for Romney.

2. It's the economy, stupid: Never mind the dust-up over Hilary Rosen’s comments, Ted Nugent’s rant or anything involving dogs. The overwhelming concern of voters at this point is a serious one: the state of the economy.

In a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 53% of respondents said jobs and the economy were the most important issues when thinking about their choice in the election. That poll showed the race as 47% to 43% for Obama overall. But 45% of respondents said Romney was stronger on jobs and the economy, compared with 43% who said Obama was. It was the only issue on which Romney led.

That may explain why the president does not have a more significant lead given how well he scores against Romney on some key questions.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that respondents overwhelmingly preferred the president when asked which of the two candidates is likable, cares about average people, or is looking out for the middle class. The only questions on which Romney led were: has good ideas on how to improve the economy, and could change business as usual in Washington.

The same poll found that only 36% of respondents say they think Obama's policies have improved the economy, while 33% said they have hurt, and 30% said they have made not much of a difference. But those in the survey seemed to respond more positively to a key element of the president's recent stump speech focusing on economic fairness, suggesting that he could benefit in an election that is seen as a choice rather than a referendum.

In the Pew survey, Obama had a significant lead among respondents who said their top priorities include healthcare, education, the environment and birth control. Romney led among those whose priorities included the budget deficit and Iran. Overall, the top issues listed by poll respondents included the economy, jobs, healthcare, the budget deficit and education.

3. Women matter: There's a reason the first skirmish of the general-election battle was all about women. There is a significant gender gap at the moment, with polls showing female voters backing the president by a wide margin, and men, to a lesser degree, supporting Romney.

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