President Barack Obama runs ahead of Republican front-runner Mitt Romney in two states critical to deciding the U.S.’s November election and leads by a lesser margin in a third, according to a poll that says Obama is benefitting from a recovering economy and support among female voters.
The “swing-state poll” for Quinnipiac University shows Obama ahead of Romney by 7 percentage points in Florida, 6 points in Ohio and 3 points in Pennsylvania. In a comparable survey released in early December, Romney led Obama by 3 points in Florida and 1 in Ohio, while the Pennsylvania figures were the same -- the president up by 3.
The current poll also provided fodder for the Romney campaign’s argument that the former Massachusetts governor would be a stronger opponent for Obama than the other leading contender in the Republican race, Rick Santorum.
The survey shows Obama leading Santorum by 13 points in Florida, 7 points in Ohio and 7 points in Pennsylvania, which the Republican represented for 16 years in the House and Senate.
The three states combined have 67 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Ohio has been carried by the winner of every presidential election since 1964, and Florida sided with a loser only once over that period -- in 1992 when it backed then President George H.W. Bush over Democrat Bill Clinton.
Optimism on Economy
While about two-thirds of poll respondents in all three states said the economy is in a recession, about six in 10 said that it’s recovering.
“The biggest reason for the president’s improving prospects probably is the economy,” Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac polling institute, said in a statement.
Obama is “on a roll in the key swing states,” Brown said, while cautioning the election is still seven months away.
A sign of Obama’s potential weakness is that in each of the three states slightly more respondents disapprove than approve of the job the president is doing. In Florida and Ohio the numbers are the same: 49 percent give Obama a negative rating while 47 percent rate him positively. In Pennsylvania, 50 percent disapprove of the president’s job performance while 45 percent approve.
The poll buttresses concerns among some Republicans that the focus in the party’s race on issues, including employer-provided contraceptive coverage, may have taken a toll on Romney.
While Obama ran about even with Romney among men in the three swing states, the president is ahead among women by margins ranging from six to 19 points, the survey showed. Women accounted for 53 percent of voters in the 2008 presidential election and they gave Obama 56 percent of their votes, according to exit polls.
The poll sketched out a swing-state electorate motivated primarily by issues related to the economy.
About nine in 10 respondents in all three states said the economy was “extremely important” or “very important” in determining their vote. About eight in 10 answered the same about unemployment and the 2010 health-care overhaul that is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
About two-thirds of those surveyed said gasoline prices were extremely important or very important to their vote, though most don’t blame Obama for rising fuel costs.
Voters “blame the oil companies and oil-producing countries for the rise in gasoline prices and only about one in six voters blame them on President Obama,” Brown said.
Social issues are far less important to swing-state voters than economic matters. In none of the three states did a majority of poll respondents say that issues including abortion and same-sex marriage were extremely important or very important in their voting decisions.
“Despite the focus on social issues such as same-sex marriage and women’s reproductive health, these issues are lower priorities for the voters,” Brown said.
Romney is the likely Republican nominee because he has accumulated more than twice as many national convention delegates as Santorum, according to the Associated Press tally. The two, along with U.S. Representative Ron Paul and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, next square off in April 3 primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C., with Romney favored in all three.
The Quinnipiac survey interviewed 1,228 voters in Florida, 1,246 voters in Ohio and 1,232 voters in Pennsylvania from March 20-26 using land lines and cell phones. The sampling margin of error for each state is plus-or-minus 2.8 percentage points.