Economic discontent and substantial dissatisfaction with Barack Obama's performance in office are keeping Mitt Romney competitive in the presidential race - but not by enough of a margin to overcome Obama's stronger personal profile. The result: A dead heat in voter preferences at the midsummer stage, with the prospect of an epic battle ahead.
While most Americans continue to disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy, that's not his only problem. More than half fault him on health care and immigration as well. Sixty-three percent say the country's headed in the wrong direction, an unhelpful view for an incumbent. And among groups, he's losing swing-voting independents by a record 14 percentage points.
Yet Romney faces significant challenges of his own in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. His supporters are more apt to be against Obama than explicitly for Romney - a "negative" vote that can be less compelling than an affirmative one. His supporters are less strongly enthusiastic than Obama's. While Obama is vulnerable on the economy, Romney is weakly rated on having offered a clear economic plan. And Obama leads on a range of personal attributes - empathy, standing up for his beliefs and, especially, basic likeability.
Obama also continues to prevail in expectations: Despite his troubles, this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds that Americans by 58-34 percent expect him ultimately to defeat Romney and win a second term. That's Obama's best on this gauge to date (previously measured against "the Republican nominee"), a sharp difference from last October, when, with economic discontent at a higher pitch, 55 percent thought Obama would lose. Today, even among Romney's supporters, a quarter think Obama will win.
With a 47-47 percent Obama-Romney contest among registered voters, the overall results point to a sharply defined race: On one hand Obama, the more personally popular candidate, with a larger and more energized partisan base, yet weak performance scores; on the other Romney, his opportunities to capitalize on Obama's vulnerabilities complicated by his difficulties in capturing the public's imagination.
Helpful to Obama, given the economy, is the fact that in deciding their vote, Americans by 51-33 percent are focused more on what he'd do in his second term as president than on what he's done in his first. Among registered voters who are more concerned about what Obama's done so far, Romney leads by 18 points, 55-37 percent. Among those more focused on what he'd do if elected to a second term, by contrast, Obama leads by 59-36 percent, a 23-point margin. It marks why he's trying to point ahead ("Forward" is the campaign slogan); Romney, back.
ROOM - There's room to move: One in five of Romney's current supporters, and one in six of Obama's, say there's a chance they could change their mind and support the other candidate. Very few, though, say there's a "good chance" they could shift - a mere 4 percent of Obama's supporters, 8 percent of Romney's.
That suggests that more than changing minds, the contest likely is to be about motivating turnout - and here Obama has an edge. Among registered voters, half of his supporters (51 percent) are "very" enthusiastic, vs. 38 percent of Romney's. It can matter: Strong enthusiasm is a measure on which Obama crushed John McCain in 2008, and on which George W. Bush beat John Kerry in 2004. Still, while lagging, Romney's strong enthusiasm has improved by a dozen points since spring.
In another measure, moreover, 75 percent of Obama's supporters say they mainly are for him, rather than against his opponent. For Romney that shifts dramatically - just 37 percent of his supporters mainly are for him, while 59 percent say they're chiefly opposed to Obama.
To some extent that's what happens in a re-election race - largely a referendum on the incumbent. But it can be harder to motivate voters who lack an affirmative reason to support a candidate; Romney's numbers on this measure resemble Kerry's in 2004.
PERFORMANCE and ISSUES - While Romney's difficulties include atmospherics such as expectations, Obama's are more performance-based. His overall job rating is 47-49 percent, approve-disapprove (the same as in May). It's majority negative on his handling of the economy, 44-54 percent; health care, 41-52 percent (a numerical low in approval, with no bump from last month's Supreme Court ruling); and immigration, 38-52 percent (also bumpless despite his initiative halting enforcement against many illegal immigrants who arrived as minors).
The "wrong track" number, at 63 percent, is hazardous to Obama, but not dispositive. It was worse on the way to George H.W. Bush's losing re-election bid in 1992 (83 percent that June). But it also was worse than it is now (70 percent negative) in June 1996, the year Bill Clinton went on to win a second term; the sentiment subsided as the campaign progressed. And it was negative, as well, (55 percent "wrong track") days before the 2004 election, when the second President Bush won regardless.
The question is whether Romney can do better, and on a range of issues the call is a close one. The economy's the big kahuna - 89 percent say it's important in their vote choice, 53 percent "extremely" important - and Romney and Obama are close in trust to handle it, 49-44 percent (48-45 percent among registered voters). They're also close in another question, being seen as having presented the clearer plan for dealing with the economy, 43-38 percent, Obama-Romney.
Still, the public, by a 7-point margin, 43-36 percent, calls Obama's handling of the economy a major reason to oppose rather than to support him. And among registered voters who call the economy "extremely" important in their vote choice, Romney leads in vote preference by 54-41 percent. Those results underscore the extent to which Obama needs the economy to improve or - an equally difficult task - the subject to change.
Health care, the deficit and taxes trial the economy as top issues among those tested in this survey, followed by Supreme Court appointments and immigration. Romney has a 10-point advantage in trust to deal with the deficit; Obama, 11 points on appointments to the high court. On each of the rest, they're essentially even.
TAXES, JOBS and BAIN - One notable result is the fact that Obama and Romney are rated evenly in trust to handle taxes, usually a strong issue for Republican candidates (although Obama's seen better, leading on taxes in February, as well as vs. McCain in 2008.) It's a competitiveness Obama may have had in mind in pressing Monday to extend Bush-era tax cuts for those with incomes less than $250,000.
Obama's biggest issue shortfall is on a related matter, the deficit; among registered voters who call it extremely important in their choice he trails Romney by a vast 25-70 percent. That said, with unemployment stubbornly at 8.2 percent, deficit concerns are countered by economic woe: The public divides, 48-45 percent, on whether it's more important for the government to spend money to try to create jobs, or to hold down the deficit. These views, naturally, cut sharply to vote.
Spending on jobs has risks, given Obama's vulnerability to the "big government" tag: The public by an 11-point margin, 37-26 percent, sees his views on the size and role of government as a major reason to oppose rather than support him. (The rest say it's not a major factor.)
There's no such net negative in views of Romney's background buying and restructuring businesses - an even split on whether his Bain Capital background is a major reason to support or oppose him (23-24 percent), with 50 percent saying it makes no difference.
There's a close division, as well, on whether Romney at Bain Capital did more to create or cut U.S. jobs, 36-40 percent - a complication in his efforts to take the jobs issue to Obama.
HEALTH CARE - On another issue, health care, the candidates' best path is unclear. While Obama shows no advantage on the issue, his law itself has gotten something of a boost - Americans now divide evenly on it, 47-47 percent, support-oppose. It was 39-53 percent in April, before the Supreme Court upheld the law's individual mandate.
With support for the law divided and Obama's approval rating on handling health care weak, there's opportunity for Romney; he gets 9 points more support than opposition, 38-29 percent, from his call to repeal the law (with the rest saying it's not a major factor). But there's little support for complete repeal in and of itself - just 18 percent overall. Other critics of the law divide evenly between a preference to repeal only parts of it, or to wait and see its impact first.
In any case, positioning on the law may not change many votes: Americans divide exactly evenly, 28-28 percent, on whether they'd be more likely to support or oppose a candidate for Congress who supports the health care reform law. Four in 10 say it won't make much difference.
PERSONAL ATTRIBUTES - Beyond the issue wars, as noted, Obama retains advantages over Romney in personal qualities, including a vast 36-point advantage in being seen as more friendly and likeable, and a more important albeit narrower 10-point lead as better understanding the economic problems Americans are experiencing.
Obama also holds a slight 9-point edge as being more apt to stand up for what he believes; the two are closer on who's the stronger leader. All these have held essentially steady since spring.
GROUPS - Vote preferences among groups, as noted, include Romney's best showing to date among registered voters who identify themselves as independents, 53-39 percent. Obama comes back to parity overall because Democrats account for a larger share of the pie than Republicans, 36 percent of registered voters vs. 27 percent.
Among other groups, preferences among married women who are registered to vote continue to be unsettled; they now divide very closely, 44-47 percent, Obama-Romney, after a better result for Obama in April and for Romney in May. Obama's support meanwhile is a bit softer than usual among unmarried women, but his best to date among unmarried men. The gender gap more generally is back - Obama up by 8 points among women, Romney by 7 among men.
Romney, for his part, ties his best result so far among senior citizens, 57-37 percent, and runs evenly with Obama among college graduates, a group in which Obama did better earlier this year.
Combined with the closeness of the contest, the sharp differences among groups make the 2012 election look like one in which broad themes are likely to matter less than either a breakout event - or, more likely, each campaign's eventual proficiency at persuading its supporters to vote.
METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone July 5-8, 2012, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 4 points for the full sample and 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.