Obama Leads on Expectations - But the Race Itself Stays Close

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Registered voters by 2-1 think Barack Obama will win the upcoming presidential debates and go on to prevail in the November election. But expectations aside, the race remains close, with strengths and vulnerabilities for both candidates in the campaign ahead.

After a challenging period for Romney, registered voters by 63-31 percent expect Obama to win re-election, his widest advantage in expectations in ABC News/Washington Post polls to date. A year ago, in sharp contrast, Americans by an 18-point margin thought he'd lose.

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Potential voters by a similar 56-29 percent also expect Obama to win the debates beginning Wednesday night in Denver - a result that ratchets up the pressure on the president to perform, leaving Romney, whatever his difficulties, greater opportunity to exceed expectations.

The contest between them, regardless, is far closer than those prognostications would suggest. Registered voters in this survey, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, divide by 49-44 percent between Obama and Romney, with the race a virtual tie, 49-47 percent, among those most likely to vote.

While those standings are essentially unchanged from their immediate post-convention levels, some results indicate a slight tailwind for Obama. Ratings of the economy, while very negative, have grown less intensely so since late August (39 percent say it's in poor shape, down from 45 percent). Obama's 47 percent approval rating for handling the economy, while still underwater, is numerically its highest in more than two years. And views that the nation is headed seriously off on the wrong track have eased by 9 percentage points to the fewest since January 2011.

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ASSETS - Obama enjoys other key assets. Sixty-six percent say his policies have favored the middle class, while 57 percent think Romney's, instead, would favor the wealthy - not a significant change since Romney's "47 percent" comment, but still a deep disadvantage for the Republican. And registered voters by 52-39 percent think Obama better understands the economic problems of average Americans, again not significantly different from early September, but numerically his widest lead over Romney in this measure since February.

And there's the controversial comment itself - Romney's assertion at a surreptitiously recorded fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans don't pay income taxes, see themselves as victims and lack personal responsibility. Registered voters, however, by 57-39 percent say it's fair that some people (chiefly senior citizens, people on disability, students, the working poor and the unemployed) don't pay income taxes. And it cuts to vote: Among the majority that sees this as fair, Obama leads by 20 points. Among those who think such people ought to pay at least some taxes, though, it's Romney by 17.

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Yet there are substantial liabilities for Obama as well. Seventy-eight percent of registered voters are worried about the economy's direction in the next few years. Six in 10 are worried about their own family's financial situation. Fewer than half, 47 percent, are confident the economy will improve if Obama is re-elected. Just 28 percent are persuaded that the federal economic stimulus program in fact helped the economy (about as many think it hurt). Obama's job approval rating among registered voters, 49 percent, remains less than a majority. And "wrong track" sentiment, while down, is still 60 percent - high enough to threaten an incumbent.

Moreover, back to the "47 percent" comment, there's a tilt Romney's way on the question of government dependency: Registered voters by 51-43 percent say government programs to help poor people do more to increase dependency than to get people back on their feet. (On programs to help the unemployed those views are reversed.)

Results such as these keep Romney in the hunt. He leads by nearly 50 points, for instance, among registered voters who say the country's headed off on the wrong track, by 72 points among those who rate Obama's economic performance negatively, by 43 points among those who question the effect of government programs for the poor and by nearly 60 points among those who are "very" worried about the economy's direction.

But - with the clock ticking - Romney has not taken full advantage of these opportunities. Among those who are "somewhat" rather than "very" worried about the economy, Obama leads by 60-36 percent. And despite Obama's difficulties on the economy, he runs evenly with Romney among registered voters overall in trust to handle it, 47-47 percent.

BASELINES - Still, Romney's made progress on some baseline attitudes. Last February, 66 percent of registered voters said he had not paid his fair share of taxes; today that's dropped sharply, to 48 percent. That's mainly because Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have moved to his side on this question since he clinched the GOP nomination.

There's also been an 8-point increase since last winter in the number of registered voters who see Romney's wealth as more of a positive than a negative, to 51 percent, again chiefly because of movement among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

There's also been a slight, 5-point decline since late August in the number who see unfairness in the economic system as a bigger problem than over-regulation of the free market; the division is now 49-42 percent. And while registered voters by 52-43 percent think the government should try to address the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans, that's narrowed from 58-37 percent last year, when economic discontent was at a higher pitch.

All these cut sharply to vote, indicating their potential importance in the debates ahead. Registered voters who think the government should try to reduce the wealth gap favor Obama over Romney by 75-21 percent; those who say otherwise favor Romney, 72-20 percent. Those more concerned with unfairness in the economic system are for Obama by 77-18 percent, while those more focused on over-regulation back Romney, by an identical margin.

TRUST ON ISSUES - Trust on individual issues generally is stable, with surprising strength for Obama in two areas. Repeating results from early September, he's competitive with Romney in trust to handle taxes and the federal deficit. Both traditionally are stronger for Republicans.

At the same time, Romney remains competitive vs. Obama in trust to handle health care, usually a better issue for Democrats, but less so given the country's divisions over the Affordable Care Act. The candidates likewise are closely matched on Medicare, 47-43 percent, likely with ACA-related concerns counteracting broad skepticism of Paul Ryan's plans for Medicare.

Ratings on international affairs are inconclusive; on one hand Romney's narrowed the gap in trust to handle them, now 49-44 percent, Obama-Romney; on the other, measuring the two separately, 64 percent say Obama knows enough about world affairs to serve effectively, while fewer, 51 percent, say the same about Romney.

There also remain issues on which Obama clearly leads, vs. no such for Romney. Those include trust to handle terrorism (53-39 percent), a major crisis (52-42 percent), social issues such as abortion and gay marriage (52-38 percent) and women's issues (54-36 percent).

PERSONALLY SPEAKING - Romney's lack of an advantage in trust on the economy leaves room for personal attributes to come into play, and on these he's generally vulnerable. One has worsened for him: Registered voters by 52-40 percent say they'd prefer Obama as the captain if they were on a ship in a storm, opening up from a 46-43 percent split last month.

In other, lighthearted measures, Obama leads Romney by anywhere from 14 to 25 points on whom registered voters would rather go camping with, have as a dinner guest, see as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, or whose music playlist they'd rather hear. Helpfully for Romney, though, the two are even on another measure - one that requires the greatest level of personal responsibility: Whom you'd rather have babysit for your kids.

Apart from babysitting, these measures add up to personal likeability, and on a direct measure of that attribute Obama retains his single biggest advantage, 62-29 percent over Romney. However it's empathy, not likeability, that far more strongly predicts vote preference, and on that, as noted, Obama's advantage is 13 points, not 33.

GROUPS AND TURNOUT - Patterns among groups generally fit their recent norms. There's a gender gap among registered voters - a 10-point Obama lead among women, vs. essentially a tied race among men. Obama trails by 13 points among white voters, but leads overwhelmingly among nonwhites, with 77 percent support. And independents - often swing voters in national elections - divide precisely evenly.

What matters, critically, is who turns out. Among Obama's supporters in this survey, 51 percent describe themselves as very enthusiastic about their choice - notably fewer than its level at this time four years ago, 61 percent. Indeed Romney has closed the enthusiasm gap from early September; then he trailed Obama by 10 points in very enthusiastic supporters. Today it's an insignificant 3 points.

Romney also has ramped up his get-out-the vote efforts. In late August, 31 percent of Obama's supporters said they'd been contacted by his campaign, while just 18 percent of Romney's backers said they'd heard from their candidate. Today Obama's outreach number is essentially the same, while Romney's has advanced, virtually to parity: Twenty-six percent of his supporters now say they've heard from him.

Among the particular challenges for Obama are young voters: A mainstay of his support in 2008, they're far less likely now to say they're certain to turn out.

Getting out the vote, for both candidates, may carry the extra burden of battling expectations. Among Obama's supporters, 96 percent expect him to win - raising the risk that some will feel secure enough not to bother turning out. Among Romney's, at the same time, 28 percent pick Obama to win - suggesting the possibility they'll be demotivated. Between the two, fighting expectations may be hardest for Romney: In fall season election polling since 1984, when most Americans have expected one candidate to win, he has.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 26-29, 2012, among a random national sample of 1,101 adults, including 929 registered voters and 813 likely voters, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for registered voters and 4 points for likely voters, 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 31-25-36 percent among the general population, 33-28-34 percent among registered voters and 33-30-33 percent among likely voters. Partisan divisions in the 2008 exit poll were 39-32-29 percent.