The latest poll by NPR and its bipartisan polling team [pdf] shows President Obama with a 7-point lead among likely voters nationally and a nearly identical lead of 6 points in the dozen battleground states where both campaigns are spending most of their time and money.
But the poll also finds former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney very much within striking distance of the incumbent as the two men begin a series of three debates Wednesday in Denver. More than 80 percent of respondents said they planned to watch the first televised clash Wednesday and one in four said the debate could influence their vote.
The poll found 51 percent of the likely voters planning on or leaning toward a vote for the president, with 44 percent voting for or leaning toward his challenger. In the battleground subsample, the numbers were 50 percent Obama and 44 percent Romney. Those numbers were slightly better for the president than his job approval rating in the poll. Nationally, the president was at 50 percent approval (46 percent disapproval), but in the battleground he was at 48 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval.
Battleground voters were also more downbeat about the direction of the country. Asked whether things were generally going in the right direction or "pretty seriously off on the wrong track," 59 percent in the battleground said wrong track and just 36 percent said right direction. That gap of 23 points was only 16 points on the same question in the national sample.
The poll of 800 likely voters was conducted over the final five days of September by Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps and Whit Ayres of Resurgent Republic. About a third of those polled live in the 12 states considered in play for the Nov. 6 election: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Ayres, the Republican half of the team, noted that the actual electorate in November may not have as many Democrats as this NPR poll's likely voter sample, which he called "a best-case scenario" for the president's party.
"When you sample voters over time, you inevitably get varying proportions of Democrats and Republicans in the sample. It's nothing nefarious, just the vagaries of sampling," Ayres said. "This sample ended up with seven points more Democrats than Republicans. In 2008, there were seven points more Democrats than Republicans in the electorate, according to exit polls. But in 2004, there were equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans."
If this year's voters were to split evenly again between the two major parties, Romney would have an advantage. The NPR poll found him a 4-point favorite among independents.
Most observers expect this year's party ratio to be somewhere between the Democratic tilt of 2008 and the even split of 2004 (which recurred in the midterm elections of 2010). Greenberg, the Democratic member of the polling team, said polling this year has generally found fewer people self-identifying with the GOP.
"They're moving into the independent category," Greenberg said, "where also if you look at the brand position of the Republican Party and Democratic Party, the Republican Party favorability has been dropping throughout this whole period."
But while the ranks of independents are growing, that does not imply a large number of undecided voters with five weeks left to Election Day. The pollsters found only 2 percent calling themselves undecided. Moreover, 11 percent of those who do not support the president said they might still change their minds. Fifteen percent of those who do not support Romney say the same.
"We have a very polarized electorate where people go to their tribal corners and fight it out," Ayres said. "But in an election this close, even a point or two could make a difference."
The poll indicates that the Republican challenger has a tall order to fill Wednesday night and in the remaining weeks, as he has fallen behind on issues such as taxes, the economy and Medicare.
Ayres said that means his party's nominee needs "to paint a compelling picture for a better economic future, and explain why his emphasis on small businesses and private sector solutions is more likely to succeed than Obama's emphasis on governmental and public sector solutions."
Ayres also noted that when his firm tested the statement "Obama's economic plan is working and we need to stay the course" versus the opposing option, "Obama's economic plan is not working and we need to try something different," the latter choice was easily the more popular. But when the statements were altered to emphasize Romney's video quotation about "the 47 percent who don't pay taxes," the results were different.
"That reinforces the argument that Obama cannot win a referendum on his economic record," Ayres added. "The only way he can win is to so thoroughly trash Romney that he becomes an unacceptable alternative."
The NPR poll, like others in recent weeks, showed half the electorate giving Romney an unfavorable personal approval rating. Ayres said that was the other imperative for Romney in the debates: "He needs to come across as knowledgeable and compassionate about people who are hurting in this economy. ... If he does that, then he will help to close this gap."
Democratic pollster Greenberg maintained that efforts to make the election a referendum on the economy had been under way for months and had yet to take hold. Nonetheless, he said, the president cannot afford to sit on his current lead.
"He's got to decide on one thing that he wants to communicate here," Greenberg said. "My guess is he'll want to communicate a presidential — but not arrogant — empathetic style. He's got to focus in a way that seals the deal."
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We have a new poll this morning by NPR News's bipartisan team of pollsters. This survey shows that among likely voters President Obama leads Mitt Romney by seven points nationally, and by six points in the dozen battleground states where the campaigns are spending most of their time and money.
But as NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, this survey also shows that the debates beginning tonight in Denver have the potential to shake up the race.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Almost every recent poll shows a lead in single digits for the president. Ours is on the high side of the range - seven points nationally and six in the battleground states. Whit Ayres, who's the Republican half of our polling team, explains why the current numbers may overstate the Obama case.
WHIT AYRES: This survey reflects a best-case scenario for Democrats. When you sample voters over time, you inevitably get varying proportions of Democrats and Republicans in the sample. It's nothing nefarious. It's just the vagaries of sampling. This sample ended up with seven points more Democrats than Republicans. In 2008 there were seven points more Democrats than Republicans in the electorate, according to exit polls. But in 2004 there were equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.
LIASSON: Most observers expect this year's turnout ratio to be somewhere between the 2008 edge for Democrats and the dead-even party turnout of 2004 and 2010.
Stan Greenberg, our Democratic pollster, says this year party I.D. has been tilting away from the GOP.
STAN GREENBERG: Across many polls, you have a drop in people who are self-identifying as Republicans. They're moving into the independent category, where also if you look at the brand position of the Republican Party and Democratic Party, the Republican Party favorability has been dropping throughout this whole period.
LIASSON: But independent doesn't mean undecided. Our poll found hardly any undecided voters and only few voters who said they could still change their minds; just 11 percent of Obama supporters and 15 percent of Romney's.
AYRES: We have a very polarized electorate, where people go to their tribal corners and fight it out. So there are not that many movable people. But in an election this close, even a point or two could make a difference.
LIASSON: And that brings us to tonight's debate. Eighty-two percent of our likely voters say they plan to watch. And about one in four say the debate could affect their vote. That's why both candidates have been spending so much time getting ready for the debates and gaming the expectations.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Governor Romney, he's a good debater. I'm just okay.
MITT ROMNEY: There's going to be all this scoring of winning and losing. And, you know, in my view it's not so much winning and losing, or even the people themselves - the president and myself. It's about something bigger than that.
LIASSON: Romney faces the bigger task tonight because in our poll he's fallen behind on issues like taxes, the economy and Medicare. And he's viewed less favorably as a person.
AYRES: In the debate tonight, Romney has to paint a compelling picture of a better economic future and explain why his emphasis on small businesses and private sector solutions is more likely to succeed than Obama's emphasis on governmental and public sector solutions. He needs to come across as knowledgeable and compassionate about people who are hurting in this economy. If he does that, he will help to close this gap that we're seeing in a lot of recent polls.
LIASSON: Our poll shows Romney still has a four point advantage among independents, so it's quite possible that a solid performance tonight could begin to turn the race around. That's one reason Stan Greenberg thinks the president can't afford to sit on to his lead.
GREENBERG: He's got to decide on one thing, that he wants to communicate here. My guess is he will want to communicate a presidential but not arrogant, empathetic style. He's got the same problem. He's got to focus in a way that seals the deal.
LIASSON: Romney is still struggling to turn the race into a referendum on President Obama's economic record. Whit Ayres says he can start doing that tonight.
AYRES: If Mitt Romney becomes an acceptable alternative, I think it devolves into a referendum on Barack Obama's economic record. At this point I don't think he could win that referendum.
GREENBERG: But isn't it too late for this? I mean we've - you know, that's been the argument for some time, that we have to make the election a referendum. They had an entire convention to make that case. And I think what we get here with the Democrats emerging with a bigger lead, that becomes a big challenge for Mr. Romney.
AYRES: Which is why it is so important for Governor Romney tonight to paint a compelling vision of a better economic future.
There will be two more debates this month between these candidates. But tonight's first encounter has the most potential to change the dynamic of the race. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Denver.
LIASSON: If you want to take a look at the full poll results, just go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.