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Final NPR Poll Says Presidential Race Is Too Close To Call

The final NPR Battleground Poll for 2012 shows former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holding a slim lead in the national sample, but trailing President Barack Obama in the dozen swing states that will decide the election.

The poll adds further evidence that the Oct. 3 presidential debate between the two men redefined the race. But the movement toward Romney that emerged after that night in Denver also seems to have stalled after the race drew even and has left the outcome difficult to call.

A new Pew Research poll released yesterday also showed as much with dead-even national race, with the two candidates tied among likely voters at 47 percent apiece. The previous Pew poll, conducted at the beginning of October, showed Romney ahead of the president by four points nationally, 49 to 45 percent.

Romney had a one percentage point lead overall in the head-to-head preference poll by NPR. The president led by four percentage points in the smaller sample of 466 voters in 12 states: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. Both the Romney lead and the Obama lead were within the poll’s margin of error.

The poll was the third conducted by this year’s iteration of the NPR bipartisan polling team. The Republican pollster Whit Ayres of Resurgent Republic was joined in the effort by Democratic counterpart Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps. Their joint report was based on interviews with 1,000 likely voters conducted from Tuesday through Thursday last week (Oct. 23-25). The margin of error for such a poll is three percentage points for the national sample and 4.5 percentage points for the smaller sub-sample (462 respondents) in the battleground states.

Four weeks earlier, just before the first debate in Denver, the NPR team produced a report showing the president ahead by seven points nationally and by six points in the battleground. Romney forces have maintained throughout October that the Denver debate transformed the dynamics of the race, and by some measures the former Massachusetts governor has been on the march. But after closing the gap between himself and the president, Romney’s gains seemed to hit a wall – at least temporarily.

Ayres, the Republican half of the NPR polling team, said most of the gains for Romney had come among independents, who went from favoring Romney by a few points before the debates to favoring him 51 percent to 39 percent after the debates. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama won among independent voters.

“So were it not for the debates,” Ayres concluded, “I think Obama would be cruising to a victory right now. Because of the debates, this is going to be an incredibly close election.”

There is direct evidence for that in the NPR poll, which found 33 percent saying the debates made them more likely than they had been to vote for Romney. Just 28 percent said the debates made them more likely to vote for the president.

It’s for that reason that NPR also found Republicans to be more enthusiastic about the upcoming Election Day on Nov. 6 than Democrats. A Pew also found that Republicans are more likely to say they will vote.

Obama trailed Romney among independents in both polls. Romney held an eight-point advantage in the Pew Poll and a 12-point margin in the NPR survey.

But Ayres’ Democratic counterpart, Greenberg, said he still saw the latest poll as evidence the president would be re-elected.

“For me the main takeaway is Barack Obama will be president if this poll holds,” he said.

While conceding that the debates had helped Romney establish himself with a slice of the electorate, Greenberg insisted the real battle was in the target states where the president still maintains a small lead. He called it “the kind of lead that could allow you to be re-elected as president.”

Both pollsters agreed the element of Hurricane Sandy and the protracted coverage of storm damage and cleanup would distract voters in the final days of the campaign. The aftermath of the storm may also make it more difficult for early voting to continue as it has in some Eastern states, and even more difficult than usual for pollsters to reach voters to interview.

But there was plenty of good news for the Obama campaign to be happy about. Despite some recent polls suggesting that North Carolina might be slipping out of the president’s grasp, a new Elon University survey released Monday shows the race all tied up in the Tarheel state, with both candidates netting the support of 45 percent of respondents.

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