Rising enthusiasm and declining anxiety mark an energy boost among Mitt Romney's supporters since he prevailed in the first presidential debate. But a persistent sense he'd favor the wealthy, combined with easing discontent with the nation's direction, provide a retort for President Obama, raising the stakes for their second showdown this week.
Romney now numerically leads Obama in strong enthusiasm and trails him in anxiety among potential voters, both firsts this season. At the same time, the number of registered voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll who say the country is headed seriously off on the wrong track has eased to its lowest in nearly three years, 56 percent - a level incumbents can survive.
Following the best jobs report in 44 months, 52 percent say Obama deserves at least some credit for lower joblessness. And gains have been felt locally: Thirty-two percent now call it "very difficult" to find jobs in their area, down from 49 percent in July 2011.
These competing pulls make for a continued close race, with preferences narrowly divided and essentially unchanged. Likely voters split by 49-46 percent between Obama and Romney if the election were today, compared with 49-47 percent in the last ABC/Post poll, just before the first debate. The three-point difference between the candidates is within the survey's margin of error.
Notably, Obama's support among likely voters has ranged, tightly, between 47 percent and 49 percent in four ABC/Post polls since late August; Romney's has been between 46 percent and 49 percent in that same time. Neither has broken free, nor exceeded the 50 percent line. If that holds, it becomes a get-out-the-vote election - an area in which Obama currently has an advantage, but Romney's proving more effective than was John McCain in 2008.
The poll finds likely voters in nine battleground states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin) dividing by 51-46 percent, Obama-Romney (not a significant difference). In the states rated as strong for Obama it's 56-39 percent; in those seen as strong for Romney, he leads by an almost identical 55-39 percent.
DIRECTION AND BUZZ - The public's basic mood is hardly bright; well fewer than half of registered voters, 42 percent, say the country is headed in the right direction. But that's up by 13 percentage points since late August, and compares to just 8 percent at this point in 2008.
Indeed the "right direction" number is no worse now than it was at about this time in 2004, when George W. Bush overcame majority discontent to win a second term. Similarly, Obama's job approval rating, 50 percent among all adults, matches Bush's then.
But the better buzz for Romney, especially since his debate performance, also is significant. Strong enthusiasm among his supporters has soared from 26 percent five months ago to 59 percent now, including an 11-point gain in just the past two weeks. And while Obama's strong enthusiasm is eight points lower than at this point in 2008, strong enthusiasm for Romney - potentially an indicator of voter turnout - is a vast 30 points better than McCain's four years ago.
Anxiety - another indicator of comfort with the candidates - tells a similar story in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates. The number of Romney supporters who feel anxious about how he'd perform as president has eased by 9 points since late August, to 53 percent. Anxiety among Obama's supporters about how he'd handle a second term has followed a different path - 53 percent six weeks ago, 58 percent now. Anxiety about Obama is now numerically greater than it is about Romney, again a first this season.
One further measure highlights these shifts as the campaigns enter the critical voter-turnout stage of the race: While 57 percent of registered voters expect Obama to win re-election, that's declined from 63 percent before the first debate, including an 11-point drop among Republicans.
FUNDAMENTALS - Other fundamentals - many of them more challenging for Romney - remain in place. He's still very broadly seen as likely to favor the wealthy and as not having offered enough details about his polices. He's even with - but not ahead of - Obama in trust to fix the economy, and in the expectation it'll improve under his leadership.
Romney's weaker than Obama in ratings of honesty and trustworthiness, and continues to trail in economic empathy and personal likeability alike, the latter by a 2-1 margin. Romney's about even with Obama on two other attributes, strong leadership and - fundamental to their campaign arguments - having a better sense of the right size and role of government.
The improving trend on the "right direction/wrong track" question is important for Obama. Among likely voters who say the country is headed in the right direction - again, a group that's grown this fall - 92 percent favor him. Among those who say the country's pretty seriously off on the wrong track, by contrast, 80 percent back Romney.
Similarly, among likely voters who say plenty of jobs are available in their area, Obama leads Romney by 72-23 percent; among those who say jobs are somewhat difficult to find, it's a close 52-45 percent split. But among those who say finding jobs is very difficult, Romney leads, 69-26 percent.
Certainly there's a political component to views on jobs and the country's direction, both of which can be filtered by partisan predispositions, particularly in the late stages of an election. Since late August "right direction" sentiment has jumped by 16 points among Democratic registered voters, to 74 percent, and by 13 points among independents, to a much-lower 37 percent. It's hardly budged - now at a dismal 7 percent - among Republicans.
GOTV - Attention to the race is on the rise; nearly nine in 10 registered voters are following the contest closely - up 8 points since early September - and for the first time this season more than half, 54 percent, are following it "very" closely.
The campaigns themselves are playing a strong role in voter reach-out: Twenty-five percent of registered voters say they've been contacted by Obama's campaign, 21 percent by Romney's. That puts Romney closer to Obama in get-out-the-vote contacts than McCain was in 2008.
However, Obama's effort looks to be better targeted: Among registered voters who've been contacted by his campaign, 68 percent support him. Among those who've heard from the Romney campaign, fewer, 53 percent, are Romney supporters.
It matters, for this reason: Just 67 percent of likely voters say they plan to vote on Election Day; 32 percent instead say they'll vote early (including 2 percent who've already voted). Among those who plan to vote early, Obama holds the advantage, 54-43 percent, underscoring the particular importance of early turnout to his campaign. In ABC/Post polling in 2008, he won early voters even more widely, by 58-40 percent.
While turnout increasingly is the critical element, there also may yet be minds to change: Eighteen percent of likely voters remain persuadable, defined as those who are both anxious about their candidate and interested in more information about the contest. That's eased from 23 percent in late August.
But the persuadability window is closing; while attention to the race is up, the number of likely voters who are interested in gathering more information about the candidates has fallen from 39 percent just before the conventions to 26 percent now. And using another gauge, likely voters' self-assessments, just 9 percent now see a chance they may change their minds before they vote.
ISSUES and ATTRIBUTES - A challenge for Romney is that he's yet to break out on any issue, especially his key opportunity, the economy. Likely voters divide essentially evenly, 48-47 percent, on which candidate they trust more to handle the economy, Obama or Romney. Also, a tepid 51 percent of likely voters express confidence the economy will improve under Romney, vs. a similar 48 percent who are confident it'll get better under Obama.
On other issues, Romney does best among likely voters, 51-43 percent vs. Obama, in trust to handle the deficit. But Obama's opened a lead, +13 points, in trust to handle Medicare, leads by a slight 9 points in trust to handle a major crisis and 7 points on international affairs. The two run evenly in trust to handle health care - traditionally a better issue for Democrats - but also in trust to handle taxes, customarily better for the Republican candidate.
Romney's opportunity is reflected in the overwhelming judgment, by 69-18 percent among registered voters, that he won the first debate; 35 percent say they came away with a better opinion of him overall - a much better impact than Obama realized in 2008. The outcome of the first debate was a surprise; in a pre-debate ABC/Post poll, 56 percent expected an Obama win.
That said, Romney has more to do. Perhaps most critical is to address the continued perception, expressed by 57 percent of likely voters, that he would do more as president to favor the wealthy than the middle class. Sixty-eight percent, in contrast, think Obama has favored the middle class.
Sixty-three percent also still say Romney hasn't done enough to explain his positions, 9 points more than say the same about Obama.
GROUPS - Some of these underlying measures matter more than current vote preferences, since the election actually isn't today, and turnout is still up in the air. That said, among likely voter groups, recent patterns in vote choices continue. Men divide very closely while Obama, as is customary for a Democrat, does numerically better among women. Singles favor Obama, while those who are married are more apt to go for Romney.
Obama trails by 11 points among whites, but comes back with a vast 73-18 percent lead among nonwhites. Romney's Mormon religion looks to be no impediment among evangelical white Protestants, a core Republican group in which he leads by 81-17 percent. (Obama did better in this group against McCain.) The contest has tightened among white Catholics, a swing group in some elections, albeit with Romney maintaining a numerical (not statistically significant) edge. (McCain won this group by 5). And independents, frequently another swing voter group, divide by a closer 48-42 percent, Romney-Obama.
Underscoring Obama's GOTV worklist, he's again got broad support among young likely voters, as well as among those with incomes under $50,000 a year - both groups whose turnout is less reliable.
LIGHTER LOOK - This survey also takes a lighter look at some serious underlying attributes, measuring which candidate registered voters would rather have as captain of a ship in a storm (suggesting skill under duress), babysit their child (caring and responsibility), work as their employee (reliability) and which they think would be more apt to go bungee jumping (fun for some, risk-taking to others).
There's been some change: Preference on the "captain" question has tightened from +12 Obama two weeks ago to an insignificant +4 Obama now, possibly reflecting Romney's debate performance; but "babysitter" has moved from an even split to +13 Obama, possibly because he was seen as more soothing or less confrontational in the debate.
Indeed, in another result, the number of registered voters who say Obama chiefly is attacking Romney, rather than addressing the issues, has eased by 7 points. Whether that holds after Tuesday night remains to be seen.
METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 10-13, 2012, among a random national sample of 1,252 adults, including 1,063 registered voters and 923 likely voters, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for registered and likely voters alike, including design effect. 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.
Partisan divisions in this survey, Democrats-Republicans-independents, are 33-22-37 percent among the general population, 34-25-36 percent among registered voters and 35-26-33 percent among likely voters. Partisan divisions in the 2008 exit poll were 39-32-29 percent.