Poll finds 2012 race dead even, foresees relatively high turnout

People stand in line to vote early in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
(J Pat Carter / Associated Press Photos)

With only one week left in the 2012 campaign, a major new Pew Research Center poll is projecting a relatively high level of voter turnout in the dead-even presidential contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

The national opinion survey, released Monday, shows the president and the former Massachusetts governor each drawing support from 47% of likely voters.

In an encouraging sign for the Republican challenger, the poll found that Romney-leaning voters are more likely to turn out to vote than those leaning to Obama. And the results clearly pointed up the continuing benefits of the presidential debates to Romney’s chances of success next Tuesday.

The poll found that Obama has yet to win back most of the support he lost after the opening debate in Denver. At the same time, more than one in three voters — 36% -- said they had a better opinion of Romney as a result of the debates. Only half that many — 18% — said the same of Obama.

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Among the factors that may produce a historically close election, there is currently a much smaller — and offsetting -- gender gap in 2012 than there was four years ago.

Romney leads among men by seven percentage points, according to the Pew survey, while women favor Obama by six points. In the 2008 election, Obama won the women’s vote by 13 points over Republican John McCain, according to exit polls, and he also won men, by a one-point margin.

The Pew survey, of more than 2,000 adults, was completed Sunday, before Hurricane Sandy made a significant impact on the East Coast. The margin of sampling error among likely voters was plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

In the latest poll, the proportion of voters who said they have given a lot of thought to the election was higher than in 2000 and 1996 and only a bit lower than in 2004 and 2008, both of which were high-turnout elections.

“While turnout forecasts are very difficult, the level of engagement at this point in the campaign suggests that a relatively high percentage of voters will go to the polls,” Pew’s analysis concluded.

As in other recent elections, turnout favors the Republican, by a slight margin. Romney voters are four percentage points more likely than Obama’s to say that they have given a lot of thought to the election, and five points more likely to say that they definitely plan to vote.

Beyond the national opinion surveys, most state polls show that Obama is clinging to a tiny edge in enough battlegrounds to secure the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election.
But the Pew poll underscores the enormous potential for a late opinion swing to shift the race either way in the days leading up to next week’s election.

It found that 13% of likely voters were either undecided or said they could still change their mind. That swing-vote component is essentially unchanged from the 14% who were swing voters in an early October poll by Pew.

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Among those in the swing category, Romney holds the advantage when voters were asked which candidate had new ideas and would do a better job of reducing the federal budget deficit and improving the jobs situation.

But on a far broader array of traits and issue measures, swing-vote respondents favored Obama. When asked which candidate connects well with ordinary Americans, Obama had a 46-percentage-point advantage among those in the swing category. He also was heavily favored when those voters were asked who would do a better job of dealing with taxes, Medicare and foreign policy.

The president was also seen as a stronger leader by swing voters and as someone who takes more moderate positions and is willing to work with the opposing party.

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