As the first presidential debate draws near, President Obama leads or is at parity with Mitt Romney on virtually every major issue and attribute in what remains a competitive general election, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The survey also highlights an emerging dynamic in the race: the disparity between the state of the race nationally and in battleground states, where campaigning and advertising by the two candidates have been most intense and where the election will be decided.
Nationally, the race is unmoved from earlier in September, with 49 percent of likely voters saying they would vote for Obama if the election were held today and 47 percent saying they would vote for Romney. Among all registered voters, Obama is up by a slim 5 percentage points, nearly identical to his margin in a poll two weeks ago.
But 52 percent of likely voters across swing states side with Obama and 41 percent with Romney in the new national poll, paralleling Obama’s advantages in recent Washington Post polls in Florida, Ohio and Virginia.
Obama and Romney have focused outsized efforts in swing states: About a third of all voters in these states say they’ve heard from each side. Outreach makes a particularly big difference among less-reliable young voters, who proved critical in electing Obama four years ago.
Romney enters Wednesday’s debate in Denver under acute pressure to turn around a campaign that has lost ground in states – particularly Florida and Ohio – widely seen as critical to his prospects.
He’s had a tough couple of weeks, let’s be honest, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said of his party’s presidential contender in a Sunday interview on CBS’ Face the Nation. He’s going to come in Wednesday night, he’s going to lay out his vision for America and this whole race is going to turn upside down come Thursday morning.
By a wide margin, voters expect the president to win the debate matchup, and the new survey points to key obstacles remaining in Romney’s way. But there are also signs that some parts of the political landscape have shifted somewhat in favor of the Republican.
A slim majority of voters now see Romney’s wealth as a positive, signifying his achieving the American Dream. Fewer are focusing on issues of economic inequality and the gap between rich and poor.
Just after Romney released his 2010 tax return this year that showed he had paid a federal income tax rate of about 14 percent, 66 percent of voters said he had not paid his fair share. Now, after the release of his 2011 return showing a similar tax rate, 48 percent say he is not paying his fair share, and about as many, 46 percent, say he is.
Romney still faces challenges on this terrain. As was the case before the nominating conventions, almost six in 10 voters say that as president, the former Massachusetts governor would do more to favor the wealthy than the middle class. And by 57 percent to 39 percent, most voters say it is fair that some Americans – including senior citizens on Social Security, people on disability and the working poor – do not pay federal income taxes.
Romney’s description of the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes as people who consider themselves victims in a secretly recorded video from a springtime fundraiser has stirred controversy and served as fodder for a tough new ad from the Obama campaign.
Although Romney loses that argument in the current poll, an anti-government message has a deep vein of support. More than seven in 10 are dissatisfied or angry with the way the federal government is working, and by 51 percent to 43 percent, voters see government programs as doing more to create dependency among the poor than to help them get back on their feet.
Moreover, Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., may be making headway in their argument about the threat of government overreach. Asked whether overregulation or a system that favors the wealthy is the bigger problem, 49 percent of voters say unfairness and 42 percent say overregulation. This is the first time in polls this year that under 50 percent of voters chose unfairness as the larger concern.
Similarly, the percentage of voters who say the government should pursue policies aimed at narrowing the gap between rich and poor has also dipped.