Republican Mitt Romney’s negative ratings are preventing him from capitalizing on President Barack Obama’s vulnerabilities in the race for the White House, according to a new poll that gives the incumbent a lead heading into the first of three presidential debates.
Half of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Romney -- a September high for a presidential challenger in the last three decades. Forty-nine percent of likely voters consider the former Massachusetts governor out of touch, compared with 40 percent who say that of Obama, in the latest Bloomberg National Poll conducted Sept. 21-24.
Obama heads into the closing stretch of the race with a majority of Americans -- 53 percent -- disapproving of his handling of the economy, and Romney holding a slim edge as the candidate likely voters rate best able to create jobs. The president does have one clear advantage -- his economic plan is breaking through with more Americans, who give him a 48 percent to 39 percent advantage over Romney on having a vision for a successful future.
In the head-to-head contest, Obama leads Romney among likely voters, 49 percent to 43 percent, even as 60 percent of Americans say the nation is headed off on the wrong track as the president completes his first term.
“If I have to choose between the two, I prefer Barack over Mitt,” said Stephanie Martin, a 41-year-old insurance agent in Glasgow, Virginia, who describes herself as a libertarian. “I think Mitt Romney is just so out of touch. It’s mostly a protest against him and the Republican establishment; it’s not that I think Obama has done such a great job.”
The telephone survey of 1,007 adults, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, suggests the presidential election may defy history with victory going either to a president with lackluster approval ratings presiding over an 8 percent national unemployment rate or to a challenger who is disliked by the public.
It also indicates that Republicans’ hopes of profiting from an “enthusiasm gap” born of disaffection with Obama haven’t materialized. Seventy percent of likely voters supporting Obama say they are enthusiastic about the election, matching the percentage of Romney backers who are eager to vote. Obama’s supporters were slightly more likely than Romney’s to say their minds were made up.
“This race could be a referendum on Obama -- except that Romney hasn’t given people reasons to say ‘yes’ to him,” said J. Ann Selzer, of the Des Moines, Iowa based Selzer & Co., who conducted the poll.
The findings show that the public continues to view Romney as more disconnected from their lives and unconcerned with their challenges. Americans disagree with Romney’s recently leaked comment to high-dollar donors that 47 percent of the public view themselves as victims dependent on the government -- an assertion he later said was stated inelegantly yet is a key part of his campaign message. Fifty-one percent said Romney is wrong and Americans work hard and sometimes need government help, while 41 percent said he was right and more people should be able to make it on their own.
Martin, who said she initially supported Republican Texas Representative Ron Paul’s candidacy, is skeptical of “the big-government ideology” she said underpins Obama’s policies. Yet, Romney’s agenda and his recent comments make him an unappealing alternative.
“I find it distasteful for the people who earn millions of dollars to act like people are greedy because they have to depend on the government,” Martin said. “People at the bottom can’t just snap their fingers and create wealth without some sort of a hand. At least Obama is trying to take care of the vulnerable people in this country.”
The poll found that likely voters rate Obama better than his rival on an array of issues, including understanding their problems and struggles, handling health care and women’s issues, and improving the economic situation for the middle class.
“Romney’s vision glass is empty -- he says he can fix it, but voters don’t have enough sense of the substance of Romney’s vision,” Selzer said, adding that next month’s debates could influence their final assessments. “This poll seems to be saying the electorate is yearning for that side-by-side comparison they’ll get when the two candidates are on the same stage answering the same question.”
Still, voters gave Romney a slight edge on dealing with some day-to-day concerns. They were close to split on the overriding question of creating jobs, with 47 percent saying Romney would be best and 45 percent siding with the president. Obama and Romney were tied on who would be best at reviving the housing market, with 44 percent of likely voters naming each one. While Obama held a slight advantage on who would be most effective in making the nation energy independent, likely voters rated Romney better than the president -- 46 percent to 39 percent -- on dealing with gasoline prices.
“It’s not necessarily to vote for him because I agree with his views, it’s voting for the lesser of the evils,” Justin Hancock, a 21-year-old student and Army reservist in Phoenix, Arizona, said of Romney. “It seems like Romney has a little better chance of trying to get the government out of our lives, so I’ll go for him.”
Large majorities say they are skeptical about both candidates’ promises -- Obama’s that he would reduce the budget deficit without raising taxes; Romney’s that he would cut income taxes without raising the deficit by curbing tax breaks that primarily benefit the wealthy.
Obama holds an advantage among women and voters under the age of 54, while Romney won those aged 65 and over. Men were roughly split, giving Obama a 2-point edge.
While likely voters prefer Obama and regard him as better-connected with ordinary Americans’ struggles and worries, the survey indicates that middle-wage workers are less likely to hold this view. Obama beats Romney among those earning less than $50,000 and more than $100,000, yet among those in between, Romney has a slight edge. The same is true on who would do best at improving the economic situation for the middle class; Obama has advantages with those earning less than $50,000 and more than $100,000, yet those in the middle prefer Romney.
That has yet to translate into a broader acceptance of Romney as a credible alternative to Obama that would make him more competitive.
“With Mitt Romney, you get to the point where, OK, I’m feeling comfortable with his ability to lead the country, especially with regard to our economic situation, but then he goes and says something utterly stupid, and my concern is that he’s going to end up polarizing everything like Obama did,” said Susan Garland, a 55-year-old educational consultant from Milford, Ohio. “That’s what’s holding me back -- I need to feel like he can cross those boundaries and engage with folks who might have a different idea and a different life than he does.”
Garland, who backed Obama in 2008 and is disillusioned with him, described Romney as a “nuts-and-bolts kind of guy” who could improve the country’s economic standing, while she called Obama a historic figure and “brilliant” visionary in the mold of President John F. Kennedy.
“What is Obama offering that would work for us?” asked Garland, who is now her family’s primary breadwinner after her husband was fired from a job he had for 28 years at a diesel engine company. On the other hand, she said Romney’s 47 percent comment “makes him come off as being this insensitive buffoon, who doesn’t get the common man’s struggles.”