Leadership Ratings Help Obama; 50 Percent Approval, Not So Much

President Barack Obama waves as he is introduced at a campaign event Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, in Milwaukee. (Morry Gash / AP Photo)

Barack Obama has maintained a sizable advantage over Mitt Romney in trust to handle a major crisis and regained his lead in being seen as the stronger leader, wielding the benefits of incumbency to stay competitive, economic discontent aside, in the razor-close 2012 election.

Obama also has managed essentially an even split with Romney in views of which candidate has better ideas on the size and role of government - another case, as with the economy, on which Romney has been unable to capitalize fully on a vulnerability of the president's.

See PDF with full results and charts here.

Romney's held his ground nonetheless, notably with record levels of support within the Republican Party and broad backing in some of its key constituencies, and in the final weekend of the race the contest remains deadlocked, with 49 percent support for Obama among likely voters, 48 percent for Romney in the latest ABC News/Washington Post daily tracking poll.

There's no clear evidence that Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy has directly helped him; while he holds a 10-point lead over Romney in trust to handle a major crisis, 52-42 percent, that's the same as it was earlier this fall, long before the storm struck.

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Still, Obama has improved in a related gauge: This poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds that he now leads Romney by 6 percentage points among likely voters, 50-44 percent, in being seen as the stronger leader. That re-establishes an edge for Obama that Romney had reeled in to a nonsignificant 2 points after the first presidential debate.

A third result further underscores the difficulties Romney's experienced in achieving a clear breakthrough. Earlier ABC/Post polling found a broad sense that Obama favors a larger government, while Romney is seen as favoring a smaller one; the latter is a view most likely voters profess to share. Yet asked in this poll who has better ideas about the right size and role of government, it's a 48-45 percent split, Romney-Obama - not a significant difference, despite Romney's built-in opportunity.

The economy is another such issue, indeed the key one. Romney opened a 9-point lead in trust to handle the economy the week before last, but his momentum didn't hold; it's a nonsignificant 3 points, 49-46 percent, now. And in economic empathy - better understanding the economic problems of average Americans - Obama holds a 6-point lead, again having recovered from a tighter division 10 days ago.

Certainly Obama faces difficulties of his own. His overall job approval rating is steady at 50 percent - passable enough to run competitively, but a good indication of why the contest is so close. There's a strong correlation to vote preferences: Among likely voters who approve of Obama's job performance, 93 percent back him for re-election; among disapprovers, 93 percent favor Romney. As a referendum on the incumbent, it's a squeaker.

That brings it down to turnout (in an election in which 27 percent of likely voters say in fact they've already voted) and there Obama has a potential advantage. He holds a 7-point lead over Romney in the share of his supporters who say they're very enthusiastic about their choice - 69 percent of Obama's backers, 62 percent of Romney's. That's Obama's biggest lead in strong support, numerically, since just after the conventions.

GROUPS - Romney, as noted, is remarkably strong in his base, with 97 percent support among Republicans; if it holds that would be an in-party high for any candidate in exit polls back to 1976. Obama has 91 percent of Democrats, losing more of them to Romney (7 percent) than Romney's losses among Republicans (3 percent to Obama). Independents split essentially evenly, but Obama's support among independents, 46 percent, matches his high.

Romney has 82 percent support among evangelical white Protestants, surpassing John McCain's total in this group four years ago; their turnout this year is one potentially important element of the race. Among whites overall, it's Romney by 57-39 percent; that compares to 55-43 percent for McCain vs. Obama four years ago.

The reason Obama won in 2008, while losing whites by 12 points, was his 80-18 percent support among nonwhites, a record 26 percent of the electorate four years ago. He has a similar margin now, 76-21 percent, including 96 percent support among blacks and 66 percent among Hispanics.

Among the many groups worth watching in a race this close, another is white women with college degrees. They back Obama by a 9-point margin in the latest data, while all other whites - less-educated white women, and white men regardless of their education - favor Romney by 60-35 percent. That difference contributes to the gender gap overall - Obama +7 among women, Romney +6 among men, a division, among the many, that keeps the popular vote estimate where it's been: for all intents and purposes, a tie.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 2012, among a random national sample of 2,069 likely voters, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 2.5 points, including design effect. (Question 12j and 13f-g were asked Nov. 1-Nov. 3 among 1,748 likely voters; those results have a 3-point error margin.) 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, Democrats-Republicans-independents, are 33-29-34 percent among likely voters; they were 39-32-29 percent in the 2008 exit poll.

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