The presidential race heads into its final two weeks with polls showing a dead heat nationally and some tightening in the most closely competitive states, suggesting the outcome could turn on a mistake or which campaign better mobilizes its forces.
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are tied at 47 percent in a national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of likely voters released yesterday. In Florida, where the two rivals will debate tonight, the candidates were virtually even in an Oct. 17-18 CNN/ORC International poll of likely voters, with 49 percent backing Romney and 48 percent supporting Obama.
An initial daily tracking poll by ABC News and the Washington Post released today gave Obama a 49 percent to 48 percent lead among likely voters. The survey of 1,376 likely voters was conducted Oct. 18-21 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Gallup’s daily tracking poll had Romney leading among likely voters, 51 percent to 45 percent, and ahead among registered voters, 48 percent to 47 percent. Those surveys had margins of errors of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
A Quinnipiac University/CBS News poll of likely Ohio voters released today showed Obama leading Romney by 5 percentage points, 50 percent to 45 percent. That’s half the margin Obama had when that same poll was done in late September.
“This is going to be a very close race and we’ve said that consistently,” David Axelrod, Obama’s senior political strategist, said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“The trend is in our direction,” said Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio on “Meet the Press.” Portman, encamped with Romney over the weekend in Delray Beach, Florida, for debate practice sessions, said the polling reflects what he has seen on the ground.
“The enthusiasm and energy is on our side this year,” Portman said. “That’s where you want to be at this point in the campaign.”
Surveys over the past week have shown the former Massachusetts governor narrowing or eliminating Obama’s lead in several swing states, those with a history of supporting either party’s presidential candidate. Romney gained momentum from winning his first debate with Obama on Oct. 3 in Denver.
The tie in Oct. 17-20 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll represented the first time this year Obama hasn’t led in the survey. The poll of 816 likely voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Romney erased a 5-percentage-point lead Obama had in the same poll in mid-September, which had narrowed to a 3-point advantage by late last month.
For Romney, the good news is that the latest polling suggests his momentum wasn’t stemmed by his second debate with Obama, held Oct. 16 in Hempstead, New York. The pair’s final faceoff starts at 9 tonight at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, and focuses on foreign policy. Romney took a midday tour of the debate hall today, joined by aides Beth Myers, Stuart Stevens and Gail Gitcho.
The positive view for the Obama camp is that the recent polling shows he tends to do better among the broader samples of registered voters, rather than the smaller pool of those deemed likely to cast ballots in the Nov. 6 election.
Among 1,000 registered voters in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, Obama leads Romney 49 percent to 44 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. If Obama’s political organization is as good as it claims to be, he should be able to get at least some of those additional registered voters to the polls.
The survey’s likely voter sample shows Romney leading among men, 53 percent to 43 percent, and Obama ahead among women, 51 percent to 43 percent. Romney’s support among men has grown in the past month while Obama’s advantage among women has diminished slightly.
Axelrod, in his television appearance, said Obama’s campaign is confident about its standing in part because of the number of Democrats who have already cast ballots through the early-voting process.
“We’re even or ahead in these battleground states,” he said. “If you look at the early voting that’s going on around the country, it’s very robust and it’s very favorable to us. And we think that’s a better indicator than these public polls, which are frankly all over the map.”
Six of the nine top battleground states -- including Iowa, Ohio, Nevada and North Carolina -- have early, in-person voting under way as of today.
Polling last week in Iowa and Wisconsin, another of the states that strategists in both parties say will decide who wins the White House, showed Obama maintaining his lead in each. Obama led Romney 51 percent to 43 percent in Iowa, and 51 percent to 45 percent in Wisconsin, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist College survey released Oct. 18.
Obama, who spent his weekend preparing for tonight’s debate at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, is scheduled to campaign tomorrow in the same city where Romney held his debate rehearsals -- Delray Beach -- and also go to Ohio. The following day, he embarks on a 48-hour sprint through six states that includes additional stops in Florida and Ohio. Also as part of the trip, he will stop in Chicago and become the first incumbent president to cast an early, in-person vote.
Obama won Florida in 2008, and every incumbent president seeking re-election since 1984 has carried the state. The CNN poll that last week showed a virtual tie in the presidential race among Florida’s likely voters had Obama ahead of Romney in the registered-voter sample, 50 percent to 43 percent.
The state is central to the strategies of both campaigns. If Obama can win Florida, he’ll almost certainly renew his White House lease. If Romney fails to carry it, he would have to win almost every other battleground state to prevail.
Besides a trip to church, Romney took a break yesterday from his debate preparations to officiate a coin toss at the start of a flag football game on the beach between his staff and members of the media covering his campaign.
“Where’s Chris Christie when we need him?” he joked as he expressed a desire for a more robust offensive and defensive line, making reference to the New Jersey governor’s size.
In a pre-game huddle, Romney told his team to play tough. “Don’t worry about injuries, guys,” Romney joked. “Win.”
He declined to answer questions from reporters. “I’m ready for football,” he said, when asked whether he was prepared for today’s debate.
He also declined to answer a question on whether he would support one-on-one talks with Iran on that country’s nuclear development program.
U.S. policy toward Iran, especially efforts to keep it from obtaining nuclear weapons, is expected to come up at tonight’s debate. The New York Times reported yesterday that the U.S. and Iran had agreed to direct negotiations on the nuclear issue for the first time, a story later denied by the White House.
Portman said on “Meet the Press” that “the last thing we would want to do is abandon our allies on this and to make it a one-on-one negotiation.”