The Presidential Race

For now, at least, reservations about Romney trump disappointment with Obama.

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Ronald Brownstein
Sept. 27, 2012, noon

For Pres­id­ent Obama, Elec­tion 2012 is look­ing more en­cour­aging as a choice than as a ref­er­en­dum.

In the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll, as­sess­ments of Obama’s per­form­ance and agenda re­main equi­voc­al at best, es­pe­cially among whites. But the sur­vey finds Obama lap­ping Mitt Rom­ney in sev­er­al key com­par­is­ons, par­tic­u­larly those re­lat­ing to em­pathy.

Buoyed by those com­par­is­ons, Obama has opened a sol­id 50 per­cent to 43 per­cent lead over the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee among likely voters in the bal­lot test for Novem­ber, the poll found. Obama drew sup­port from 78 per­cent of minor­it­ies and 41 per­cent of whites, each down only slightly from 2008.

The latest poll sur­veyed 1,000 adults for the en­tire ques­tion­naire by land­line and cell phone from Sept. 15 to 19; it also polled an­oth­er 250 adults to gen­er­ate a sample of 1,055 likely voters. The mar­gin of er­ror is 3.1 per­cent­age points for the first group and 3 points for the second.

The sur­vey asked Amer­ic­ans to rank Obama and Rom­ney on sev­en traits or char­ac­ter­ist­ics; the pres­id­ent led or tied on each one. Rom­ney ran even with Obama on strik­ing “the right bal­ance” on de­fi­cit re­duc­tion. Like­wise, those polled di­vided about evenly on which can­did­ate has “the ex­per­i­ence and skills” to im­prove the eco­nomy.

But even that equal split on man­aging the eco­nomy, which mir­rors oth­er re­cent na­tion­al res­ults, rep­res­ents a gain for Obama, who trailed on this crit­ic­al meas­ure in May’s Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll. And on each of the oth­er five traits meas­ured, Obama topped Rom­ney. The pres­id­ent held single-di­git leads when re­spond­ents were asked who was more likely to im­prove their fin­an­cial situ­ation or to keep his cam­paign prom­ises. Obama did best on three ques­tions re­lat­ing to em­pathy, with re­spond­ents provid­ing him double-di­git ad­vant­ages on sup­port­ing policies that would be­ne­fit people like them, help fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, and pro­mote op­por­tun­ity for all Amer­ic­ans.

Most of these com­par­is­ons evinced a sharp ra­cial di­vide. Among whites, Rom­ney held a double-di­git ad­vant­age on the eco­nomy, deal­ing with the de­fi­cit, and im­prov­ing their per­son­al fin­an­cial situ­ation; Obama ran even (or bet­ter) on those is­sues over­all, be­cause in each case at least two-thirds of minor­it­ies pre­ferred him. On the ques­tions re­lat­ing to em­pathy, though, the pres­id­ent nar­rowly led among whites on provid­ing op­por­tun­ity for all, and he trailed only slightly on cre­at­ing op­por­tun­ity for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions and for­mu­lat­ing policies that will be­ne­fit people like you. On all three ques­tions, at least 73 per­cent of minor­it­ies pre­ferred Obama.

On ques­tions about Obama’s per­form­ance, though, judg­ments re­mained con­sid­er­ably more mixed. Just 36 per­cent said that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions will in­crease their op­por­tun­it­ies to get ahead; an equal num­ber said that the pres­id­ent’s ac­tions will de­crease their op­por­tun­it­ies. This is the first time in the 10 times the poll has asked that ques­tion since Janu­ary 2010 that pos­it­ive re­sponses have even equaled neg­at­ive ones, but it re­mains a less than ringing en­dorse­ment. Not since Janu­ary 2010 have even 30 per­cent of whites said Obama’s agenda will in­crease their op­por­tun­it­ies; just 28 per­cent of whites said so in the latest sur­vey. By con­trast, the share of minor­it­ies who said Obama’s agenda will widen their op­por­tun­it­ies jumped to 62 per­cent, the highest level ever re­cor­ded in the poll.

Re­spond­ents di­vided along sim­il­ar lines on the over­all im­pact of Obama’s eco­nom­ic agenda: 46 per­cent said his policies did “help avoid an even worse eco­nom­ic crisis and are lay­ing the found­a­tion for our even­tu­al eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery,” while 44 per­cent said he has “run up a re­cord fed­er­al de­fi­cit while fail­ing to end the re­ces­sion or slow the re­cord pace of job losses.” That’s vir­tu­ally un­changed from this spring. Once again, the close over­all res­ult re­veals a ra­cial chasm: While 64 per­cent of minor­it­ies said his agenda has had pos­it­ive ef­fects, only 40 per­cent of whites agreed.

Judg­ment on Obama’s over­all job per­form­ance wasn’t much dif­fer­ent: 49 per­cent ap­proved, while 45 per­cent dis­ap­proved — only slightly im­proved from May. Again, the ra­cial gap is enorm­ous; Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing among whites (39 per­cent) was about half his show­ing among non­whites (76 per­cent). Likely voters reached an al­most identic­al ver­dict, with 50 per­cent ap­prov­ing and 46 per­cent dis­ap­prov­ing.

The likely voter sample pro­duced a sur­vey elect­or­ate that is 73 per­cent white (com­pared with 74 per­cent in 2008). Moreover, 34 per­cent of likely voters iden­ti­fied as Demo­crats, 28 per­cent as Re­pub­lic­ans, and 34 per­cent as in­de­pend­ents. (In 2008, Demo­crats out­numbered Re­pub­lic­ans in the elect­or­ate by 7 per­cent­age points.)

As al­ways with an in­cum­bent, judg­ments on Obama’s per­form­ance strongly cor­rel­ate with pref­er­ences in his reelec­tion: 93 per­cent of likely voters who ap­proved of the pres­id­ent’s per­form­ance said they in­tend to vote for him, while 87 per­cent of those who dis­ap­proved prefer Rom­ney. But the poll strongly sug­gests that for now, an im­port­ant slice of voters who are am­bi­val­ent about Obama are giv­ing him the be­ne­fit of the doubt against Rom­ney.

The sur­vey, for in­stance, found likely voters di­vided al­most ex­actly in thirds on the fam­ous Ron­ald Re­agan ques­tion Re­pub­lic­ans high­lighted at their Tampa con­ven­tion: 31 per­cent said they are bet­ter off than four years ago, 34 per­cent said they are worse off, and 34 per­cent said their con­di­tion is un­changed. But Rom­ney led in the bal­lot test only among the third who say they are worse off: The pres­id­ent not only led by al­most 10-to-1 among those who say they are bet­ter off, but he had a nearly 3-2 ad­vant­age among those who say their con­di­tion hasn’t changed. That lead re­flects an­oth­er find­ing: By a 48 per­cent to 41 per­cent plur­al­ity, likely voters said the coun­try is bet­ter off be­cause Obama, rather than an­oth­er can­did­ate, won in 2008.

Sim­il­arly, two-fifths of likely voters said the coun­try is already sig­ni­fic­antly worse off be­cause of Obama’s policies; nearly nine in 10 of them are back­ing Rom­ney in Novem­ber. Only one in six said the coun­try is already bet­ter off be­cause of Obama’s ac­tions; he draws over nine in 10 of them. But an­oth­er 41 per­cent said that while the pres­id­ent’s policies have not yet pro­duced sig­ni­fic­ant be­ne­fits, they are mov­ing the coun­try in the right dir­ec­tion — and four-fifths of them prefer Obama over Rom­ney.

In oth­er words, Rom­ney is lead­ing only among those who ex­press un­equi­voc­al dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Obama’s im­pact, just as the Re­pub­lic­an leads only among those who say they are flatly worse off than in 2008. On both ques­tions, those of­fer­ing qual­i­fied ver­dicts on Obama’s four years provided him strong mar­gins over the Re­pub­lic­an. Both res­ults re­in­force the sense that Obama’s ad­vant­age in this race rests on voters who aren’t fully sat­is­fied with his first term but re­main un­con­vinced that Rom­ney of­fers a bet­ter dir­ec­tion.

Contributions by Stephanie Czekalinsk