Voters cast their ballots for the presidential election at an early voting… (Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty…)
As a flurry of recent polls confirms, the presidential race has returned to the situation that prevailed before the party conventions -- nearly a dead heat -- as Mitt Romney's strong performance in the first debate with President Obama largely erased the advantage the incumbent built up during September.
But although the horse-race numbers get the most attention, two other figures from recent polls say more about what's actually going on. The numbers describe opposing trends that have strong potential to shape what happens between now and election day.
One trend shows an improving image for Romney. The other shows a continued improvement in how voters judge the state of the nation.
Romney has labored for most of the general-election campaign with low standing when pollsters ask about the candidates' overall image with voters. That's now changed. The shift is one big reason why the debate helped him so much -- voters got to see Romney as he presents himself, rather than as the Obama campaign has portrayed him, and a significant number liked what they saw.
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A Politico/George Washington University Battleground poll released Monday illustrates the trend that has been uncovered by several surveys. It found that 51% of likely voters now view Romney favorably, compared with 44% who view him unfavorably. Before the debate, the poll had found 47% having a favorable view and 49% unfavorable.
Similarly, a Washington Post/ABC News poll also released Monday showed that among people who say they plan to support Romney, 59% said they were "very enthusiastic" about doing so, up from 48% before the debate.
Note that those shifts are just a few points, but in a race that has been very close -- and mostly very static -- since late spring, a few points matter. In the Battleground poll, Romney gained ground particularly among independents who, as a group, tend to pay less attention to politics and were less likely to have a strong impression of him before the debate.
That shift has helped Romney. At the same time, the improvement in how voters perceive the country's condition pulls in the opposite direction -- incumbents benefit when voters think the country is doing better. Since August, several different measures of the overall state of the country all have shown small but significant improvement.
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In the Post/ABC poll, for example, the percentage of respondents saying that the country is headed in the right direction hit 42% among both likely voters and registered voters. That number had hovered around 30% in Post/ABC polls for most of the year and dropped to 29% in late August. As with Romney's improved favorability, other polls have shown a similar trend.
Both camps will spend considerable effort over the remaining weeks of the campaign trying to shape those two crucial perceptions. The Obama campaign wants to make voters feel worse about Romney and better about the condition of the country. The Romney campaign has the opposite assignment. Which trend proves stronger will have a lot to say about who ends up winning the election.
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