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

April 20, 2012|By Michael A. Memoli

In the Pew survey, Obama was winning among women, 53% to 40%, while Romney was leading among men, 50% to 44%. In the CBS/New York Times poll, it was 49% to 43% for Romney among men, but the exact opposite among women. Obama's job-approval rating, 48% overall, was 52% among women, versus 43% among men.

Sixty percent of female respondents said they were very or somewhat confident that Obama would make the right decisions on women's health issues, while just 43% said that of Romney. But only 5% of voters overall said women's health issues were the most important factor in their vote.

Also of note, what Quinnipiac University’s Peter Brown called the racial gap. In that survey, Obama was leading among black respondents, 94% to 3%, and among Latinos, 64% to 24%, while Romney was leading, 52% to 36%, among white voters. High minority turnout is key for Obama if he is to be reelected; Ron Brownstein of the National Journal pointed out that in 2008 he was the first winning candidate to lose the white vote by a double-digit margin.

4. The enthusiasm gap: There is a reason that members of Obama's Chicago-based campaign team has been quick to email supporters with bad polling results. They're worried their core supporters aren't worried enough about the tough battle ahead.

The polling offers mixed signals on this count. In the Quinnipiac survey, 42% of Republican respondents said they were more enthusiastic about voting this time than usual, 14 percentage points higher than the number of Democrats who said that. Overall, about a third of respondents said they were more enthusiastic about voting, a quarter said less, and 43% said about the same.

In Gallup's survey, 80% of those identifying themselves as Romney voters said they would definitely vote, compared with 76% of Obama voters -- meaning no side had a statistical advantage when the margin of error is factored in.

What is concerning to the Obama camp is not just the possibility that Democrats won't be engaged to the degree the campaign would hope. The president is suffering among groups of voters who supported him in 2008 but have continued to suffer the most in the down economy, specifically people earning less than $50,000 a year and independents. White independent voters split between John McCain and Obama in 2008, but now back Romney by 16 points in the Pew survey.

5. The shrinking swing vote: The electorate may be as polarized as ever, and that means, it would seem, fewer "persuadable" voters for the campaigns to target at this point.

Gallup's initial tracking poll found that an equal number of Republicans and Democrats -- 90% -- say they support their nominee. Independents broke 45% for Romney to 39% for Obama. He also won, 46% to 39%, among independents in the Quinnipiac poll. But CNN had independents favoring Obama, 48% to 43%.

Tracking just who is an undecided or persuadable voter is one of pollsters' biggest challenges, and the varied results bear that out. The Pew poll estimated that 23% of the voters were swing voters, meaning they only lean toward one candidate or another, favor one but say they could change their mind, or are truly undecided.

That's down from 33% who said that in June 2008, but roughly even with the size of the swing vote in 2004, when incumbent George W. Bush sought reelection. The smaller the swing vote, the more the election could come down to turning out the party bases, or which campaign has a superior ground game.

Gallup experts have said that the current phase of a presidential election tends to be a critical one, in which voters' impressions of the candidates are forming and can quickly harden.

Unlike in the primary phase of the campaign, when the polling could swing dramatically in only a matter of days, general-election polling tends to be largely consistent.

Each pollster has different methodology and weighting techniques to produce its top-line numbers. When Gallup produced a head-to-head number that was worse for Obama than other surveys, for instance, Obama's campaign attributed it to the fact that minority voters made up a smaller portion of its sample than other polls.

But expect that the numbers won't fluctuate much, barring any major external events that could quickly change public opinion. Otherwise, fluctuations could be limited simply to the margins of error.

David Lauter contributed to this report.

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