Mitt Romney Shows Record Shortfall in Personal Popularity in ABC News/Washington Post Poll

PHOTO: Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney addresses a press conference after he visited his campaign headquarter in Tampa, Florida, January 31, 2012. Florida holds its Republican primary on January 31, 2012.
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Mitt Romney has emerged from the Republican primary season with the weakest favorability rating on record for a presumptive presidential nominee in ABC News/Washington Post polls since 1984, trailing a resurgent Barack Obama in personal popularity by 21 percentage points.

Thirty-five percent of Americans see Romney favorably, while 47 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the former Massachusetts governor. He's the first likely nominee to be underwater -- seen more unfavorably than favorably -- in ABC/Post polls in eight presidential primary seasons over the past 28 years.

Romney's gender gap in vote preferences in an ABC/Post poll last week -- he trailed Obama by 19 percentage points among women -- is reflected in his new favorability scores as well. Just 27 percent of women see Romney favorably, compared with 44 percent of men -- his lowest rating to date among women, and highest among men, in a dozen ABC/Post polls since September.

Obama, by contrast, has no such gap between the sexes; he's seen favorably by 56 percent of Americans overall, including 58 percent of women and 53 percent of men, surpassing Romney in both groups.

Romney also has an enthusiasm gap: Just 12 percent see him "strongly" favorably, about half as many as see him strongly unfavorably. Intensity of sentiment on Obama is more even, tipping slightly to the positive -- 30 percent strongly favorable, 26 percent strongly unfavorable.

It's worth noting that favorability is not the same as voting preference -- i.e., poll questions asking people whom they'd support if the election were today. That construct is a hypothetical one; the election is not today. Ultimate voting decisions are based on a range of factors – partisanship, policy preferences, perceptions of the candidates on policy and personal qualities alike. Personal favorability is one of the most basic measures among these.

This poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, supports an exclusive interview of Mitt and Ann Romney by Diane Sawyer, airing tonight on ABC's World News with Diane Sawyer and Nightline programs.

THE LONG VIEW – Romney's ratings are a bit better among registered voters, 40-48 percent favorable-unfavorable, though they still trail Obama's in this group, 54-43 percent. Nonetheless it's been a long rut for Romney; his favorability rating among all adults has steadily remained between 31 and 39 percent since fall, never yet cracking 40 percent. Its average across this time is 35 percent, exactly where it is today.

Still, Romney can point to previous turnarounds. His favorable score is just a whisker from the previous low, Bill Clinton's 37 percent in March 1992, in a race Clinton went on to win. But Clinton was damaged at the time by the Gennifer Flowers scandal and aided by soft ratings of the first President Bush, who was seen unfavorably by 47 percent, matching Romney's negative rating among all adults today.

Obama's not currently showing that kind of vulnerability: His overall 56 percent favorability rating is his most positive in nearly two years; 40 percent rate him unfavorably. Obama's favorable score has gained 9 points since September, and his unfavorable rating has dropped by 6, as economic gains lifted consumer sentiment out of its longest, deepest downturn in decades.

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