Americans are nearly twice as likely to say they've gotten worse off as better off under Barack Obama's presidency, a prosperity shortfall resembling the one that cost the first President Bush his job in 1992. But Mitt Romney has yet to seize the opportunity fully, with weaknesses on personal as well as professional qualities that are keeping the 2012 race a close one.
Only 16 percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll say their financial situation has improved since Obama took office, while 30 percent say they're worse off. It's one reason the public disapproves of the president's handling of the economy by 55-42 percent.
With the economy by far the top election issue, it's notable that Obama's staying competitive in vote preferences despite his poor ratings for economic stewardship. One reason is that George W. Bush continues to take more of the blame for the economy's problems; another, that Romney hasn't made the case he'd do better.
Just two in 10 in this survey, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, think they'd be better off had Romney been steering the economy instead of Obama; about as many think Romney would have left them worse off. While that's a bit (8 points) fewer than the number who say they've gotten worse off under Obama, nonetheless Obama and Romney remain essentially even in trust to handle the economy (46-47 percent) or job creation (47-44 percent).
That said, Romney has inched closer to Obama on the key question of who better understands the economic problems of average Americans, halving a 17-percentage point Obama lead in February to 8 points now. And while blame for the economy still falls more on Bush than on Obama, that's narrowed to 49-34 percent - a still-substantial 15-point margin, but down from 25 points in January. The more Obama takes the blame, the greater his risk.
Another factor: Obama's overall job approval rating, now back under 50 percent (47 percent approve, 49 percent disapprove) after hitting the halfway mark last month for just the second time since the killing of Osama bin Laden.
PUSHBACK - While these results reflect Romney's opportunities, this poll finds Obama well ahead on other measures - enthusiasm for his candidacy, views of his personal character and a sense he stands up for his beliefs - that provide him with room to push back against his vulnerability on the public's long-running economic discontent.
Even as Americans divide about evenly between the two in vote preferences, Obama does 18 points better than Romney in enthusiasm among his supporters, including a more than 2-1 advantage in the number who say they're "very" enthusiastic - 48 percent of Obama's backers, vs. 23 percent of Romney's. That reflects a problem for Romney especially in his own party: just 29 percent of his Republican supporters are very enthusiastic about his candidacy. Far more Democrats who back Obama, 61 percent, do so very enthusiastically.
The two candidates are roughly even, 47-43 percent, in views of who "better represents your personal values." But Obama leads Romney by 52-38 percent in the sense he has the better personal character to serve as president and by 51-38 percent in views that he's more apt to stand up for his beliefs. Those results underscore the advantage in personal popularity Obama's relying on to balance views of his economic performance.
It may be tough, because among issues, the economy remains the 800-pound gorilla of this election. In an open-ended question, 52 percent name the economy and jobs as the single most important issue in their vote; all other mentions are in the single digits. Among individual economic issues, unemployment is the chief concern, again by a wide margin.
VOTE PREFERENCE - All told, 49 percent of registered voters in this survey back Obama for re-election while 46 percent prefer Romney. That difference is not statistically significant, nor is the change from last month's 51-44 percent. Still it puts Obama numerically back under half, a level he's cracked just twice, in April and in February, in ABC/Post polls the past year.
While overall preferences are fairly steady, the gender gap has narrowed. Obama leads by 7 points among women who are registered to vote, 51-44 percent, compared with 57-38 percent in April. (It's now a 47-49 percent Obama-Romney contest among men.) The change chiefly is due to married women, who went from a scant 4-point tilt toward Obama last month to a 38-55 percent split in Romney's favor now.
A movable group, married women were instrumental in George W. Bush's re-election in 2004. While they shifted toward Obama last month after a period of debate about women's rights, their disapproval of his handling of the economy more recently has grown. And married women are more apt than men, or other women, to say they've gotten worse off rather than better off under Obama's presidency.
A challenge for Romney, meanwhile, is the continued deficit of Republican loyalists. On average across 2003, 31 percent of Americans identified themselves as Republicans, their highest annual average on record in ABC/Post polls since 1981. That's fallen off since, averaging 24 percent this year, and about the same, 22 percent of all adults (and 25 percent of registered voters) in this survey. Thirty-two percent of adults identify themselves as Democrats, with independents outnumbering both groups, as they have almost continuously for the past three and a half years.
In other registered voter groups, Obama leads among college graduates (52-44 percent), as he has at least numerically in 10 of a dozen polls this election cycle; notably, Obama and Romney are about even among white college graduates, 47-49 percent, while Romney leads by 24 points among whites who've not obtained college degrees. Romney leads among whites by 16 points overall, and by 9 points among registered voters with household incomes of $100,000 or more. Obama leads among nonwhites by 58 points, a margin he's held consistently.
ECONOMY/VOTE - Economic views are integral to candidate support, and there Obama is holding the middle ground. Registered voters who say their financial situation has remained about the same under his presidency favor Obama over Romney by 60-35 percent. Naturally Obama does even better, 78 percent support, among those who are better off; Romney gets an identical 78 percent of those who are doing less well.
Similarly, Obama wins a majority, 58 percent, of registered voters who say the economy is simply "not so good," another example of the incumbent holding the more lightly disgruntled center. Romney jumps to 74 percent among those who say the economy is in poor shape. (It should be noted that partisanship helps shape economic views; Democrats currently are more positive in their economic ratings, Republicans more negative.)
The debate over Romney's work at Bain Capital does not look to be helping either candidate; Americans divide, 21-21 percent, on whether they see his background buying and restructuring companies as a major reason to support or to oppose him. Most say it's not a major factor.
That said, as in previous ABC/Post polls, Obama's got an advantage in the broader debate over economic fairness. The public by 56-34 percent says unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy is a bigger problem than over-regulation that inhibits growth and prosperity. And that result cuts sharply to vote preference: Registered voters who see unfairness as the main problem back Obama by 73-23 percent; those who blame over-regulation favor Romney, 78-17.
Americans divide much more closely on whether or not the system gives them a fair chance to get ahead, 48-47 percent - hardly a resounding affirmation of the American dream (and an assessment largely based on household income). Nonetheless more say they're hopeful rather than anxious about their personal finances and the national economy alike in the years ahead, with optimism boosting Obama, while anxiety works for Romney.
Separately, Romney's comparatively weak score on "personal character" appears to reflect his long-running difficulties establishing a personal rapport with the public. Improving that connection - and through it taking fuller advantage of Obama's vulnerability on the economy - are Romney's key tasks in the campaign ahead.
METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone May 17-20, 2012, among a random national sample of 1,004 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for the full sample and 4 points for registered voters. The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.