The last few months have been rough on Mitt Romney, but the latest NPR poll shows the Republican presidential candidate still in a tight race with President Barack Obama as the two men prepare for tonight’s critical debate in Denver.
Obama holds a 7-point lead among likely voters nationally and a nearly identical lead of 6 points in the dozen battleground states where both campaigns are spending most of their time and money.
But the poll also found Romney, the former Massachusetts Governor, very much within striking distance of the incumbent. More than 80 percent of respondents said they planned to watch Wednesday night’s first televised clash at 9 p.m. and one in four said the debate could influence their vote.
The pressure will be on Romney to make up ground with the rare opportunity to share the stage with the president for the first time.
The NPR survey found 51 percent of the likely voters planning on or leaning toward a vote for the president, with 44 percent voting for or leaning toward his challenger. In the battleground subsample, the numbers were 50 percent Obama and 44 percent Romney. Those numbers were slightly better for the president than his job approval rating in the poll. Nationally, the president was at 50 percent approval (46 percent disapproval), but in the battleground he was at 48 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval.
Battleground voters were also more downbeat about the direction of the country. Asked whether things were generally going in the right direction or “pretty seriously off on the wrong track,” 59 percent in the battleground said wrong track and just 36 percent said right direction. That gap of 23 points was only 16 points on the same question in the national sample.
The poll of 800 likely voters was conducted over the final five days of September by Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps and Whit Ayres of Resurgent Republic. About a third of those polled live in the 12 swing states considered in play for the Nov. 6 election: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Ayres, the Republican half of the team, noted that the actual electorate in November may not have as many Democrats as this NPR poll’s likely voter sample, which he called “a best-case scenario” for the president’s party.
“When you sample voters over time, you inevitably get varying proportions of Democrats and Republicans in the sample,” he said. “It’s nothing nefarious, just the vagaries of sampling. This sample ended up with seven points more Democrats than Republicans. In 2008, there were seven points more Democrats than Republicans in the electorate, according to exit polls. But in 2004, there were equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.”
If this year’s voters were to split evenly again between the two major parties, Romney would have an advantage. The NPR poll found him a four-point favorite among independents.
Greenberg, the Democratic member of the polling team, said polling this year has generally found fewer people self-identifying with the GOP.
“They’re moving into the independent category,” he said, “where also if you look at the brand position of the Republican Party and Democratic Party, the Republican Party favorability has been dropping throughout this whole period.”
But while the ranks of independents are growing, that does not imply a large number of undecided voters with five weeks left to Election Day. The pollsters found only 2 percent calling themselves undecided. Moreover, 11 percent of those who do not support the president said they might still change their minds. Fifteen percent of those who do not support Romney say the same.
“We have a very polarized electorate where people go to their tribal corners and fight it out,” Ayres said. “But in an election this close, even a point or two could make a difference.”
The poll indicates that the Republican challenger has a tall order to fill Wednesday night and in the remaining weeks, as he has fallen behind on issues such as taxes, the economy and Medicare.
The NPR poll, like others in recent weeks, showed half the electorate giving Romney an unfavorable personal approval rating, making it imperative for Romney do better in the debates.
“He needs to come across as knowledgeable and compassionate about people who are hurting in this economy. … If he does that, then he will help to close this gap.”
Democratic pollster Greenberg maintained that efforts to make the election a referendum on the economy had been under way for months and had yet to take hold. Nonetheless, he said, the president cannot afford to sit on his current lead.
“He’s got to decide on one thing that he wants to communicate here,” Greenberg said. “My guess is he’ll want to communicate a presidential — but not arrogant — empathetic style. He’s got to focus in a way that seals the deal.”
Obama will do his best to avoid any campaign-altering mistakes as he presses his case for a second term.
Romney has pinned his campaign on the argument that Obama has failed to adequately juice up the U.S. economy, but his challenge is reflected in recent polls showing growing public optimism about the economy and the president’s leadership.
Romney and Obama debate again Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. Biden and Ryan have their lone debate on Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.