Obama is at 41 percent among white voters, trailing Romney, who is at 54 percent. That closely resembles the two parties' performance among whites in 2008: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., led Obama among white voters, 55 percent to 43 percent, according to exit polls.
In the June 2008 voter engagement survey, Obama led McCain, 48 percent to 40 percent. Romney runs ahead of McCain, not only in the horse race, but also on some other measures. Republicans -- particularly the most conservative members of the GOP -- are more likely to say they are satisfied with their choice of presidential candidates than in 2008. Satisfaction is down among Democrats and independents from 2008, though Democrats are still more likely to say they are satisfied with their choices than Republicans.
Romney voters are also more engaged than Obama voters. Seventy-three percent of Romney voters have given a lot of thought to the election, compared to 63 percent of Obama voters. Forty-three percent of Romney supporters are following election news very closely, while only 34 percent of Obama voters are paying that level of attention to the race. In both cases, Romney's supporters match McCain's in the June 2008 survey, while Obama voters are less engaged than four years ago.
As the two men advance toward the general election, they are attempting to sway a decreasing share of the electorate that still can be persuaded. Consistent with Pew's report earlier this month showing an increase in political polarization in the country, the new survey finds fewer "swing voters" than in 2008. In the new poll, 40 percent support Obama and say there is no chance they would vote for Romney, while 38 percent would vote for Romney and would not vote for Obama.
That leaves a slice of around one-in-five voters who are undecided or, if they support a candidate, say they could change their minds. In the June 2008 survey, significantly more voters said they were certain Obama supporters than McCain supporters, and around a third of voters were swing voters.
It is worth noting that voter engagement is not static: While the June 2008 survey showed record numbers of voters who were giving a lot of thought to the campaign, interest in the election increased only slightly before November. In comparison, surveys in previous election years, regardless of whether an incumbent was on the ballot, showed that the percentages of voters who were giving a lot of thought to the campaign increased more markedly as time went along.
That shows the limits of the June engagement data in predicting turnout levels. In 2004, 58 percent of voters said in the June survey that they had given a lot of thought to the election, significantly less than the 72 percent giving a lot of thought in June 2008. But in November, the percentages of those giving thought to the election were virtually identical. As a result, turnout increased only slightly from 2004 to 2008, from 61 percent of the vote-eligible population in 2004, to 62 percent four years later.
Pew surveyed 1,563 registered voters for the new survey; results carry a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.9 percentage points. The margins of error are higher for subgroups. Some respondents under age 30 had participated in previous surveys and were recontacted by Pew.