Mitt Romney now runs neck-and-neck with President Obama in electoral-vote-rich Ohio and Florida, according to the latest installment of the Quinnipiac University Swing State Poll, another sign that the two candidates begin the general election campaign locked in a tight battle for the White House next year.
In both states, the race has tightened since the previous poll conducted in late March. In Pennsylvania, Obama leads Romney in the race for the Keystone State's 20 electoral votes, the poll shows, putting the president in a slightly stronger position there compared to the previous survey.
Romney's rise in two of the three critical states is fueled by voters' perceptions of the economy. Voters in Florida and Ohio think the former Massachusetts governor would do a better job with the economy, while Pennsylvania voters are split evenly on the question. And only a slight majority of voters in each state thinks the economy is beginning to recover.
"Romney's ability to cut into the president's leads in Ohio and Florida reflects two changes in the political environment," according to Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "First, since he is now the de facto nominee, Romney is no longer being attacked by his fellow Republicans, who are closing ranks behind him. Second, voter optimism about the economy has leveled off, reflecting economic statistics over the past month and the public reaction to them."
Voters in three states were also asked who they would like to see Romney choose as his running mate. Florida and Ohio voters favor native sons -- Sens. Marco Rubio and Rob Portman, respectively -- while Pennsylvania voters prefer neighboring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Romney leads Obama in the Sunshine State, 44 percent to 43 percent, according to the poll. That is an 8-percentage-point turnaround since late March, when Obama led Romney, 49 percent to 42 percent. Much of Obama's advantage among women has been erased. In late March, he led by 12 percentage points among women, but the two candidates now run neck-and-neck with that constitency, 44 percent for Obama to 42 percent for Romney. Romney leads the all-important 65-and-over vote in the state, 49 percent to 37 percent.
Obama captures just 34 percent of white voters, trailing Romney by 20 points. Obama carries Hispanics by a 28-point margin, 58 percent to 30 percent.
A significant education gap persists in Florida. Obama leads by 7 percentage points among voters with a college degree, but Romney edges him by 5 points among voters without a degree. And among non-college whites, Romney holds a commanding lead, 56 percent to 30 percent. Obama lost non-college whites by 17 points in Florida in 2008, when he carried the state by a 3-point margin.
Forty percent of Florida voters have a favorable impression of Romney, compared to 34 percent who have an unfavorable opinion. Obama's ratings are mixed: Forty-six percent view him favorably, and 47 percent view him unfavorably. Half of voters disapprove of Obama's job performance, while 46 percent approve.
Asked which candidate would do a better job handling the economy, 49 percent of voters choose Romney, and just 40 percent pick Obama. In late March, 48 percent preferred Romney, compared to 45 percent for Obama.
Two-in-five voters would most like to see Romney choose Rubio as his running mate. Christie is a distant second. Among Republicans, 53 percent would like to see him pick Rubio.
Obama holds a slight, 2-point lead in Ohio, 44 percent to 42 percent. That is down from his 6-point lead in late March. Among independents, Romney leads 43 percent to 38 percent.
The gender gap is alive and well in the Buckeye State. Romney carries men by 10 points, but Obama wins women by 13. The two candidates tie among voters with college degrees and Obama leads by just 3 points among non-degree voters. Among non-college whites, Obama trails by only 8 percentage points.
Obama's favorable/unfavorable scores are 46 percent/45 percent, while Romney's are 36 percent/36 percent. Likewise, 48 percent of voters approve of Obama's job performance, but 47 percent disapprove. And 47 percent think Obama deserves to be reelected, while 48 percent do not.
Romney enjoys a modest advantage when voters are asked which candidate would do a better job handling the economy, 47 percent to Obama's 43 percent. Among independents, 49 percent prefer Romney on the economy, compared to 40 percent for Obama. In March, voters were split evenly on this question.
Twenty-six percent of voters want Romney to choose Portman as his running mate, including 30 percent of Republicans. Christie and Rubio tie for second place, both enjoying the support of 14 percent of voters.
Obama carried Pennsylvania by 10 points over Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2008, and the new poll shows he is approaching that lead over Romney. He is ahead of Romney by 9 percentage points among independents, 45 percent to 36 percent. Romney's lead among white voters is just 4 points, 45 percent to 41 percent.
Obama is blowing Romney out of the water among women, according to the poll, leading by a whopping 17 points. In late March, his advantage over Romney among female voters was just 6 points. Romney leads by 3 points among men.
Obama also enjoys a 15-point lead over Romney among voters with a college degree, including a 6-point edge among college whites. The president's lead among voters without a college degree shrinks to 4 points, and he trails by 9 points among non-college whites.
The president's other poll numbers are more positive in Pennsylvania than in the other two states Quinnipiac surveyed: A majority of voters -- 51 percent -- have a favorable impression of Obama, and half of voters approve of the job he is doing and think he deserves to be reelected. In March, his approval rating was upside-down.
Forty-four percent of voters think Obama would do a better job handling the economy, compared to 43 percent for Romney. In previous Quinnipiac polls, a plurality of voters preferred Romney on this question.
Christie is the top choice as Romney's running mate: 28 percent of voters would like to see him on the ticket, compared to 15 percent for Rubio. Among Republicans, however, Christie (29 percent) and Rubio (27 percent) run neck-and-neck.
Quinnipiac University conducted three separate polls from April 25 to May 1. Though the sample sizes for each state were slightly different (1,169 Florida voters, 1,130 Ohio voters and 1,168 Pennsylvania voters), each poll carries the same margin of error: plus-or-minus 2.9 percentage points.