President Obama holds a slight lead over Mitt Romney, but Romney is viewed by more Americans as the candidate who can improve the U.S. economy, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released late on Thursday, capping a busy week of presidential-election polling.
Obama leads Romney among registered voters, 49 percent to 43 percent. That is virtually identical to Obama's leads in two NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys earlier this year: In March, Obama led Romney, 50 percent to 44 percent; and in January, both candidates garnered the same percentages as the current poll.
The president's job approval ratings were above water in the poll. Forty-nine percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing as president, while 46 percent disapprove. And 48 percent say they have a positive feeling toward Obama, compared to 39 percent who have a negative feeling and 13 percent who describe their feelings as neutral.
Romney lags on this measure. Just a third of Americans have a positive feeling toward him, while 36 percent have a negative feeling. More than a quarter describe their feelings toward him as neutral, and 6 percent are unsure or have not heard of the former Massachusetts governor. Romney's personal ratings do represent a slight improvement since earlier this year: In March, just 28 percent had a positive opinion of him, and 39 percent held negative feelings.
But while the two candidates' ratings reflect Obama's modest advantage in the race, data about the economy reveal headwinds for the incumbent. While Obama's overall approval rating is net-positive, his approval rating on the economy is upside-down, though stable: Forty-five percent approve of the job he is doing in handling the economy, while 52 percent disapprove. In each of the three earlier surveys, Obama's approval rating on the economy was about 45 percent -- an improvement from the upper 30s and low 40s in the fall of last year.
Asked which candidate has "good ideas for how to improve the economy," 40 percent choose Romney, compared to 34 percent who pick Obama.
"Barack Obama was an underdog 200 days ago. I think today you have to say he has worked his way back up to a 50-50 chance, but no better than that," Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the survey along with Republican Bill McInturff, told The Wall Street Journal in a story set to appear in Friday's editions.
Obama does hold the advantage over Romney on other issues and personality traits. Majorities describe him as better at "being easygoing and likable," "caring about average people," and "being compassionate enough to understand average people." He also outpaces Romney on "looking out for the middle class," 48 percent to 27 percent, which suggests that framing the economic debate in terms of how government policy on the economy affects middle-income Americans plays to Obama's strengths.
This was the first full week since Romney became the de facto Republican nominee, and it featured numerous public surveys on the general-election race, with most showing a virtual dead heat or a slight advantage for Obama. Romney leads Obama in the latest Gallup Daily tracking poll, but Obama led by single digits in surveys released by Quinnipiac University, Pew Research Center, and CNN/ORC International. The two candidates were tied in a CBS News/New York Times poll released on Wednesday.
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,000 adults was conducted April 13-17, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The sample included 830 registered voters; those results, including the head-to-head matchup between Obama and Romney, carry a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percent.