Obama-Romney Race Toss-Up in Poll Showing Independents Vital

A strengthening economy and a contentious Republican primary have not translated into a wave of support for President Barack Obama, who runs even in a matchup against his likely challenger, Mitt Romney.

Obama and Romney are backed by 47 percent of likely general election voters, while the president outruns the other Republican candidates, a Bloomberg National Poll conducted March 8-11 shows. While Obama’s job approval has improved among independents, whose votes will swing the election in November, 49 percent support Romney and 41 percent Obama in the survey.

Still, with less than eight months until Election Day, Obama has improved his standing on the economy, has a majority of Americans viewing him favorably and has begun to rekindle the enthusiasm of his 2008 supporters. Forty-eight percent of the public approves of the job the president is doing, up from a September low of 45 percent. Among independents, his approval rating stands at 45 percent, a 6-point jump from September.

“Where I am now is a lot better than I was three years ago,” said Andrew Atkins, a 28-year-old television producer from Spring Lake, Michigan, who relocated from Orlando last year after he was laid off from his previous job. “We’re really starting to move our family forward, where in 2008 we were sort of at a wall.”

While there are positive trends for Obama, with Americans generally becoming more hopeful about the economy, the poll was conducted amid concerns about rising tensions with Iran, higher gasoline prices, the European debt crisis and the threats these challenges pose to the stability of the recovery.

Congressional Control

The poll also indicates that, after a year of congressional gridlock, the public isn’t eager to hand Democrats back control of the House of Representatives. If the elections were held today, 46 percent of likely voters said they would support the Republican candidate and 44 percent the Democratic candidate, in their congressional district.

A plurality continues to give Obama negative marks for his handling of the economy. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed disapprove of his handling of the economy. While that is down from 62 percent in September, it is up from 52 percent at this point last year.

Job Creation

The survey -- partly conducted after the March 9 release of the government’s February employment report that exceeded expectations and showed the unemployment rate steady at 8.3 percent -- found that 44 percent approve of Obama’s efforts to create jobs, while 50 percent don’t. On his efforts to create jobs, the president did slightly better with women, who split with 47 percent approving and disapproving.

Obama’s lowest ratings on the economy involve his handling of the federal budget deficit, with 62 percent of Americans surveyed disapproving, unchanged from six months ago.

“I’m a Democrat, but I would probably vote for someone other than the president -- he’s had his turn,” said Leslie Lee, 47, a public school teacher in Panama City, Florida. “I’ve lost 3 percent pay right off the top just to keep the same job I’ve had for the last 26 years.”

Likely voters continue to view Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and co-founder of the private equity firm Bain Capital LLC who has staked his candidacy on being better equipped to handle the economy, as the Republican with the best chances of unseating the president.

Obama Versus Romney

In matchups, Romney and the president are tied at 47 percent among likely voters surveyed. Obama bests former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum by 50 percent to 44 percent, surpasses former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich by 52 percent to 41 percent and Texas Congressman Ron Paul by 48 percent to 43 percent.

A survey released today by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows Obama ahead of both Romney and Santorum, the two main contenders in the Republican race.

The March 7-11 poll gave Obama a 54 percent to 42 percent lead over Romney and a 57 percent to 39 percent advantage over Santorum. The survey of 1,503 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Obama’s Challenges

The Bloomberg survey reveals a potential challenge facing Obama, who won the women’s vote by 56 percent to 43 percent in his 2008 race against Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, according to national exit polls of voters. Obama leads Romney among women, though by 49 percent to 45 percent.

Romney leads among men, by 48 percent to 46 percent. Romney wins seniors age 65 and over by 19 points. The two split those between the ages of 35-54, and Obama overwhelmingly wins Americans under the age of 35.

Obama also is holding onto college graduates, a group who favored him in 2008, beating Romney by 50 percent to 45 percent in the survey. Romney outruns Obama among those with only some college, high school or less education.

As Obama develops a campaign message that centers around economic fairness and draws a policy line between 99 percent of Americans and the top 1 percent in wealth, Romney wins among voters with annual incomes of $100,000 and more by 53 percent to 43 percent. He also leads by four points among voters who earn between $50,000 and $99,000 a year, while Obama wins by 13 points voters earning $50,000 and less.

Holding Bases

Obama and Romney are holding on to groups that traditionally have voted Democratic or Republican in recent elections, said J. Ann Selzer, of West Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Company, who conducted the poll.

“A key group in November will be the affluent segment,” Selzer said. “Obama and McCain tied with voters reporting household income of $100,000 or more in 2008, yet that same group went strongly for GOP House candidates in 2010 -- by 18 points.”

Among the trends boding well for the president, he continues to be held in high regard by the American public.

With Romney mired in a fight to secure his party’s nomination, almost half the country holds an unfavorable view of the former Massachusetts governor, the poll shows. At 48 percent, that is 10 points higher than it was in September. Most Americans have a favorable view of the president.

“You can’t expect him to fix everything in four years,” said Joan Amity, 68, who is an artist living in Allison Park, Pennsylvania. “He’s got his weaknesses, but the alternative to me is absolutely just an unbearable thought.”

Obama Versus Republicans

While the president’s ratings are improving incrementally, 58 percent of poll respondents who viewed Obama favorably said it was because of things he’s done, while 34 percent have been “turned off” by what they are seeing on the Republican side.

Since March, Obama has closed an enthusiasm gap among supporters who backed his election four years ago; 91 percent say they support the president, compared with 81 percent in September. Americans say the president is offering a better vision for a successful economic future than Republicans, albeit by a margin of 42 percent to 40 percent.

The poll hands the president his highest ratings on his handling of terrorism -- with 61 percent approval -- even though it isn’t emerging as a central issue in the election.

Anti-War Sentiment

Iran, however, has become a political flashpoint among the Republican presidential candidates. As Israel weighs a military strike to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, Obama has advocated pursuing additional diplomatic measures while saying U.S. support for Israel is unshakeable and that he won’t hesitate to use military force if necessary. Romney has said he would “bring the current policy of procrastination to an end.”

Yet after more than 10 years at war in Afghanistan and nine years in Iraq, the poll shows, the American public doesn’t want to send U.S. troops into another conflict.

Forty-eight percent of respondents said that if Israel decided to take military action against Iranian nuclear sites, the U.S. should express support but stay out of the conflict. Thirty-three percent said the military should join the effort by providing logistical support, such as refueling Israeli jets and supplying weapons. Eight percent said the U.S. should condemn Israel, and 11 percent said they weren’t sure.

The survey of 1,002 adults carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

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