WASHINGTON — After months of aggressive campaigning on jobs and the economy, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, his likely Republican challenger, are locked in a dead heat over who could fix the problem foremost on voters’ minds, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The parity on economic issues foreshadows what probably will continue to be a tough and negative campaign. Overall, voters would be split 49 percent for Obama and 46 percent for Romney if the November election were held now. On handling the economy, they are tied at 47 percent.
Despite flare-ups over issues including contraception and same-sex marriage, more than half of all Americans cite the economy as the one concern that will decide their vote in the fall, relegating others — such as health care, taxes and the federal deficit — to single-digit status.
More than eight in 10 Americans still rate the national economy negatively, but there are strains of optimism as it continues to recover from the collapse of 2008. A majority of Americans — 54 percent — say they are more hopeful than anxious about the situation over the next few years, while 58 percent are bullish about their financial prospects.
But it is a rearview-mirror assessment that could hurt Obama’s chances for a second term. One key indicator has hardly budged this year: Asked where they stand financially compared with when Obama took office in January 2009, 30 percent say they are worse off, and only 16 percent say they are better off. There is not a widespread sense that things would be better had Romney been president for the past three-plus years, but for the incumbent it is a critical measure. On this question, Obama’s numbers continue to resemble those of George H.W. Bush, who lost his bid for re-election in 1992 amid a flagging economy.
Voters are evenly divided between Obama and Romney on the question of who could kick-start the economy and also are split on job creation, with 46 percent siding with the president and 45 percent with Romney.
Obama fares better in some other assessments. He is ahead of Romney by eight percentage points on the question of who better understands people’s economic problems. He is up 52 percent to 39 percent as the one with “better personal character to serve as president,” and also by double digits as standing up for what he believes in. On “personal values,” voters are about evenly split.
Deep partisan divisions exist not only on questions that pit Obama and Romney against each other but also on perceptions of the economy. Democrats are more apt than Republicans to say the economy is in good shape, and are more hopeful about its trajectory. More Democrats than Republicans are optimistic about their financial futures.
The across-the-board partisanship makes it harder for either candidate to gain the edge — people’s views are stubbornly related to their underlying party leanings.
The Obama campaign last week attacked Romney’s record at Bain Capital, arguing that the private-equity firm made money at the companies it invested in at workers’ expense. Romney’s team responded that, overall, Bain had created jobs rather than cut them.
Romney’s record at Bain is neither a positive nor a negative, with as many poll respondents saying it is a major reason to vote for him as against him. Slightly more than half said it was not a big factor, although the underlying issue strikes a nerve.
Fully 56 percent of all Americans say an economic system favoring the wealthy is a bigger problem than regulatory overreach by the government; 34 percent say public constraints on the free market are a larger concern. But as many say they get a fair chance at financial success as say they sense a system stacked against them.
One clear challenge for Romney is in generating enthusiasm among his supporters, at least enough to get them to vote in the fall. A slim majority of Obama’s backers are “very enthusiastic” about his candidacy, about double the proportion intensely supportive of Romney’s.
Obama is in roughly the same position on this measure as he was four years ago when the Democratic primaries were wrapping up. Romney, too, is in a similar position to his counterpart at the time, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Obama maintained an enthusiasm advantage straight through Election Day 2008. Eight years ago, George W. Bush held a big enthusiasm advantage over Sen. John F. Kerry , D-Mass.
Obama lines up with his predecessor in the White House on another important score: overall job performance. In the new poll, 47 percent approve of Obama and 49 percent disapprove. At this time when Bush was seeking re-election in 2004, there was a similar split on him, 47 percent to 50 percent.
Public views of Obama’s handling of the economy continue to be a drag on him — 55 percent disapprove of his dealing with the issue — although a comparison with Bush provides a bit of relief. More Americans blame Bush than Obama for the country’s economic problems, although the margin has narrowed somewhat since January.
Not surprisingly, blaming Bush or Obama is another area for stark partisan differences.
The partisanship underscores the closeness of the contest between Obama and Romney: Only twice in a dozen national polls since April 2011 has either candidate’s edge exceeded the margin of sampling error, and barely so in those instances.
One of those times came last month, when Obama held a seven-point advantage. That lead was fueled in part by a 19-point advantage among women, the largest across the set of polls. In the new survey, 51 percent of female voters support Obama and 44 percent Romney, almost precisely the average divide since April 2011.
The telephone poll was conducted May 17 to 20 among a random sample of 1,004 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; it is four points for the sample of 874 registered voters.
Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill and polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.