Ed Andrieski, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Still sour on the state of the U.S. economy, Americans are nonetheless heading into the home stretch to Election Day feeling better about the country's future and about how President Barack Obama is doing his job, a new Associated Press-GfK poll shows.
Republican rival Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has lost his pre-convention edge on the economy amid a flurry of distractions that have taken him on a detour from the central message of his campaign.
For all of that, neither candidate has managed to break away in the drum-tight presidential race.
Obama is supported by 47 percent of likely voters and Romney by 46 percent, according to the poll. The survey was ending just as word surfaced of Romney's caught-on-tape comment that he doesn't worry about the 47 percent of people who pay no income taxes, describing them as believing they are victims and dependent on government.
The poll results vividly underscore the importance that turnout will play in determining the victor in Campaign 2012: Among all adults, Obama has a commanding lead, favored by 52 percent of Americans to just 37 percent for Romney.
That gap virtually vanishes among likely voters, promising an all-out fight to gin up enthusiasm among core supporters and dominate get-out-the-vote operations. That's an area where Obama claimed a strong advantage in 2008 and Republicans reigned four years earlier.
The poll gives both sides reason for hope:
—Romney is beckoning to voters unhappy with Obama's handling of the economy, and there is plenty of grim sentiment in the survey. Sixty-five percent of likely voters think the economy is worse off or no better than four years ago, 57 percent don't expect unemployment to ease in the next year and 39 percent don't expect the economy to get any better in the next 12 months.
—Obama, for his part, can take encouragement from other findings. His approval rating is back above 50 percent for the first time since May, and the share of Americans who think the country is moving in the right direction is at its highest level since just after the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. And on the economy, 49 percent of adults think things will get better in the next year, up from 41 percent before the conventions.
The two candidates run about even among likely voters in the poll on who would best handle the economy or the federal budget deficit, but Obama has narrow advantages on protecting the country, social issues and health care.
L'Tonya Ford, a 42-year-old Democrat from Detroit, said that progress on the economy has been slower than she'd like but that all signs point to Romney making things worse.
Obama's "trying to do something," she says. "Give him four more years and let him do what he's doing."
Sixty-eight-year-old Vicki Deakins, a Republican sizing up the race from Garland, Texas, is a solid Romney supporter, but she exudes more enthusiasm for GOP running mate Paul Ryan than for Romney himself.
"I don't know that Romney knows how to state emphatically, with fire and passion and guts and all that other stuff, what he wants to do," she says. "I don't think he'll be a great orator. But I do think he'll get the job done."
Americans have been increasingly focused on the presidential race since the two candidates barreled out of their summer conventions into the fall campaign: Nearly three-fourths of adults say they're paying close attention now, up modestly from earlier in the summer. And with early voting scheduled to be under way in two dozen states by week's end, just 17 percent of likely voters remain undecided or say that they might change their minds.
Among those voters still making up their minds or open to changing their positions — the coveted bloc of "persuadable" voters — 56 percent see their choice this year as a hard decision.
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