55% "Wrong Track" Matches 2004; A Difficulty for Obama, but Survivable

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Days before the verdict on his bid for a second term, the bad news for Barack Obama is that most likely voters think the country is headed seriously off on the wrong track. The better news for Obama: Previous incumbents have survived the same challenge.

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Just 43 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll say the country is headed in the right direction; 55 percent say things are pretty seriously off course. The result, hardly an ebullient reflection on Obama's term in office, clearly defines his difficulties.

See PDF with full results and charts here.

Yet it was almost precisely the same - 41-55 percent, right direction vs. wrong track - shortly before the 2004 election, a handicap George W. Bush overcame to win a second term. In another similarity, Bush fell as low as a 48 percent job approval rating heading into that election; Obama is at 50 percent in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates.

While the precedent by no means promises Obama a second term, it underscores how a president who's less than broadly popular can manage to stay competitive. Politics are comparative; while Bush had weaknesses, his opponent, John Kerry, failed to capitalize on them.

Mitt Romney, by some measures, is doing better than Kerry did. In the closing days of the 2004 election, Kerry mustered no more than 50 percent strong enthusiasm among his own supporters, a factor that can reflect motivation to vote. Romney, by contrast, has 62 percent strong support today, roughly on pace with Obama's 66 percent. Strong enthusiasm among Romney's supporters also far surpasses John McCain's four years ago. (Obama's, for his part, is on par with 2008, after lagging earlier in the fall.)

Another comparison, though, shows Romney's own challenges. Bush in 2004 led Kerry by 12 percentage points on the key issue of the day, security in a post-9/11 world. By contrast, Romney has been unable to take and hold a clear advantage on this election's key issue, the economy; his +4 points vs. Obama in trust to handle the economy falls well short of Bush's lead on security eight years ago.

CLOSE - Such are the elements of the continued deadlocked presidential race this year: Romney has 49 percent support in the latest ABC/Post tracking poll, Obama 48 percent, essentially identical to the long-running tally.

The closeness of the contest, as noted last week, is unusual: Obama's support has been between 47 and 50 percent consistently since ABC/Post polls started evaluating likely voters in July, and essentially the same among registered voters back to April 2011. Romney, since July, has occupied virtually the same narrow band as Obama, between 46 and 50 percent support. Neither has exceeded 50 percent among likely voters, a record in polls back to 1960, adjusted for third-party vote.

TRACK and VOTE - In one uncanny result, vote preferences among right direction/wrong track likely voters almost exactly mirror ABC/Post pre-election polling in 2004. Then, likely voters who said the country was headed in the right direction favored Bush by 94-4 percent; today they're for Obama by 93-4 percent. "Wrong track" likely voters in 2004 backed Kerry, by 84-12 percent; today they're for Romney, by 85-11 percent. Bush stayed competitive then, as Obama is now, by winning a bit more "wrong track" likely voters than losing "right direction" ones.

Two other comparisons involving incumbent elections further frame this year's contest. In 1992, when then-President George H.W. Bush lost re-election, 76 percent of registered voters said the country was seriously off on the wrong track - 21 points more than now - and his approval rating was down in the low 30s. In 1996, when Bill Clinton won re-election, 55 percent picked the "wrong track" answer, the same as in 2004 and today, but Clinton at about that time held 58 percent job approval regardless - a good deal better than Bush's in 2004 and Obama's now.

It likely was an improving economy that helped Clinton 16 years ago; on that now, as on much else this year, the jury is out. Consumer sentiment has been advancing, but very slowly, and from a very low level. Even with 171,000 jobs added in October, today's 7.9 percent unemployment is hardly comfortable. It was 7.3 percent in October 1992.

INDIES/ PARTIES - With Obama winning support from 91 percent of Democrats and Romney from a record 95 percent of Republicans, attention turns again to independents, often swing voters in national elections. They split by 51-44 percent, Romney-Obama, in the latest data, not a statistically significant division given the sample size.

Where independents wind up does not necessarily determine the outcome; Kerry finished a non-significant +1 point in this group in the national exit poll in 2004, but lost the election; Bush finished +2 among independents in 2000, but lost the popular vote.

In one change, independents this year are more apt to lean toward the Republican Party than they were in ABC/Post pre-election polling in 2008 (40 percent do now, 32 percent did then); these may be voters who've moved away from full allegiance with the GOP but still tilt that way.

It's true, too, that comparing independents in pre-election polls vs. the exit poll isn't perfect; respondents in exit polls, just having voted, are less apt to say they're independents.

Indeed the other missing piece is turnout among party regulars - specifically, the proportion of Democrats to Republicans who cast votes. In the 2008 exit poll Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 7 points; with that kind of margin Obama could have lost independents and still won. In 2004, instead, Democrats and Republicans were exactly evenly distributed - the kind of race in which independents are critical.

In this poll, there's a mere 3-point gap between the parties - almost precisely halfway between the 2004 and 2008 exit polls, and again contributing to the exceptional closeness of the contest.

OTHER GROUPS - Turnout among other groups will influence the ultimate partisan divisions. Nonwhites are far more apt than whites to be Democrats and to support Democratic candidates; Obama in this poll is backed by 93 percent of blacks, 67 percent of Hispanics and 77 percent of nonwhites overall. The question is whether they achieve or even exceed their 2008 turnout, a record 26 percent of the electorate.

Whites, for their part, favor Romney by 58-38 percent; Romney's now doing about as well among white women (58 percent, a new high) as among white men (59 percent), boosting him among women overall, now a close 50-48 percent split, Obama-Romney.

Romney also has now matched his high among political moderates, although with 43 percent support he trails Obama in this group by 10 points. Obama won moderates by a far broader 21-point margin, 60-39 percent, in 2008. Yet he's outpacing Bush, who lost moderates by 9 points in 2004, but still won re-election on the strength of record support from conservatives - a level Romney is rivaling today.

Finally there are young likely voters, who back Obama by more than 2-1, as they did in 2008. Fewer 18- to 29-year-olds now report being registered and certain to vote than did four years ago; on their eventual turnout, as with so many of these groups, the election well may hinge.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 29-Nov. 1, 2012, among a random national sample of 1,535 likely voters, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3 points, 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.

All four nights of this survey include the period when Hurricane Sandy approached and then hit the East Coast. Out of the full sample, 236 likely voters were interviewed those nights, Monday through Thursday, in the Northeast. Results in this group are in accord with comparable data from nights before the storm struck.

Partisan divisions in this survey, Democrats-Republicans-independents, are 32-29-35 percent among likely voters. Partisan divisions in the 2008 exit poll were 39-32-29 percent.

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