Poll shows 'gaping divide' between Democrats and 'switchers'

— -- President Obama is lagging behind Republicans in the chase for political moderate voters in 12 battleground states, according to a new poll by the centrist Democratic group Third Way.

About 59% of "switchers," voters who backed Obama in 2008 but voted for a Republican in the midterm elections, say the president's party is more liberal than they are and that their political views align more closely with Republicans. Among the 400 switchers polled, 16% said they would vote for Obama again; 25% said they would back the Republican nominee; and 59% were categorized as "persuadable switchers."

"The problem is that they don't see Obama and Democrats in their (ideological) neighborhood," Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, said of the switchers. "But we feel it's possible for Democrats to move themselves along the continuum to a center direction."

Democrats were drubbed at the polls last November, with independents favoring Republicans 55% to 39% in House races; Obama won the independent vote by 8 percentage points in 2008.

For Obama to win re-election, he will need to persuade a large number of voters who switched allegiances in the midterm elections to return to the fold, according to Third Way. Yet the poll of voters in 12 battleground states suggests that Obama is on shaky ground with swing voters. The results of the poll, conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies, were shared with USA TODAY ahead of today's release.

Third Way has close ties to the Obama administration. White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley is a former board member of the group and has long warned that the administration needs to plot a centrist course to avoid more losses at the polls.

Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said it is still early in the campaign and there will be a "vigorous discussion" on the president's and Republican field's differing views on Medicare, Social Security and job creation.

Third Way concluded "there is a gaping ideological divide between Democrats and these crucial voters," but the group also found that the moderate voters are disillusioned with Tea Party-aligned Republicans, whom they view by a 3-to-1 margin as pushing the country in the wrong direction. Democrats and Obama could do well in winning swing voters by arguing that the Republican presidential field is beholden to the Tea Party, Kessler said.

Republican strategist David Winston said he had doubts that trying to paint Republicans as extremists will be a successful strategy. "This isn't about how you're going to position Republicans," Winston said. "This is about how are you going to position the president if he's going to have a chance to win re-election."

The poll comes out as Obama pushes Republicans to back his $447 billion jobs plan and as he prepares to unveil his road map next week to reduce the nation's yawning $14.3 trillion debt.