(NY Times) – Declining confidence in the nation’s economic prospects appears to be the most powerful force influencing voters as the presidential election gears up, undercutting key areas of support for President Obama and helping give his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, an advantage on the question of who would better handle the nation’s economic challenges, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.
Despite months of negative advertising from Mr. Obama and his Democratic allies seeking to define Mr. Romney as out of touch with the middle class and representative of wealthy interests, the poll shows little evidence of any substantial nationwide shift in attitudes about Mr. Romney.
But with job growth tailing off since spring and the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, wondering aloud whether the labor market is “stuck in the mud,” the poll showed a significant shift in opinion about Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy, with 39 percent now saying they approved and 55 percent saying they disapproved.
In the Times/CBS poll in April, when the economy seemed to be gaining momentum, 44 percent approved and 48 percent disapproved.
For all of the Washington chatter that Mr. Romney’s campaign has seemed off-kilter amid attacks on his tenure at Bain Capital and his unwillingness to release more of his tax returns, the poll shows that the race remains essentially tied, with 45 percent saying they would vote for Mr. Romney if the election were held now and 43 percent saying they would vote for Mr. Obama.
Including voters who lean toward a particular candidate, Mr. Romney has 47 percent to Mr. Obama’s 46 percent.
Both results are within the poll’s margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. But it is the first time Mr. Romney has shown a numeric edge in the Times/CBS poll since he emerged from the primaries as the presumptive nominee. Mr. Obama had a three-point advantage in March. The two were each favored by 46 percent in April.
The poll, conducted between July 11 and 16 and including 982 registered voters, was reflective of the national mood, not the views of voters in the handful of swing states most likely to decide the outcome — and where most of the campaign advertising war is being waged. For instance, surveys last month by Quinnipiac University in Ohio and Pennsylvania — where millions of dollars in TV advertising is being spent — showed Mr. Obama with leads over Mr. Romney in both states.
Some polls suggest that the attacks are affecting perceptions in some battleground states.
But the Times/CBS poll nonetheless underscores a national trendline in which the economy remains the dominant force in the campaign, regardless of outside events like the Supreme Court ruling on Mr. Obama’s health care law or the daily bric-a-brac of the trail.
In a reversal from the Times/CBS Poll in April, more Americans say they disapprove of the way Mr. Obama is handling his job, 46 percent, than say they approve of it, 44 percent, although the difference is within the poll’s margin of sampling error.
Yet there are some hopeful glimmers for Mr. Obama, who is viewed as the empathetic advocate for the middle class in this poll. For instance, just over half of the voters said that Mr. Obama’s policies were improving the economic picture now (17 percent) or would in the future (34 percent).
And he maintains an advantage over Mr. Romney when it comes to the question of whether he cares a lot or some about the problems of everyday Americans — 63 percent said he did, compared with 55 percent who said the same of Mr. Romney.
A plurality of Americans, 49 percent, agree with Mr. Obama’s assertion that the Bush-era tax cuts should continue on adjusted gross annual income of $250,000 and less. More than a quarter say the cuts should stay in place for all income groups, and 17 percent say they should expire altogether.
Mr. Romney has ample challenges of his own, with the poll showing that he has yet to build up a positive image of his own as Mr. Obama seeks to build a negative one for him.
While more than half of Mr. Obama’s voters said they strongly supported him, fewer than a third of Mr. Romney’s said the same about him. More than a third of his voters said they were voting for him because of their dislike for Mr. Obama, while fewer than 10 percent of Mr. Obama’s supporters said they would vote for him out of dislike for Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney continues to be dogged by the notion that he is disconnected from the middle class. More than half of the voters said his policies would favor the rich; 11 percent said the middle class; and 2 percent said the poor. (For Mr. Obama, 21 percent said his administration favors the rich; 22 percent said the middle class; and 24 percent said the poor.)
Mr. Obama’s campaign and its allies at the “super PAC” Priorities USA Action have sought to stoke those views through television advertisements criticizing Mr. Romney’s tenure at the investment firm Bain Capital.
Six in 10 voters surveyed said Mr. Romney’s experience at Bain would not affect their vote, though other polls in swing states have indicated that the ads are influencing perceptions about his business experience.
Republicans have met Mr. Obama’s attacks with countercharges portraying him as a typical politician who has abandoned his former mantra of “hope and change.” And 58 percent of those surveyed said that he had not delivered on his 2008 campaign pledge for change.
“Obama promised a lot of promises and he failed at every one of them without exception,” Jerry Taylor, of Yerington, Nev., said in a follow-up interview to the poll. He voted for Mr. Obama four years ago but says he now plans to vote for Mr. Romney. “Words are cheap, but deeds are precious.”
The poll includes a drop in Mr. Obama’s favorability ratings, with 36 percent saying they viewed him favorably and 48 percent saying they did not. In April, 42 expressed a favorable opinion of him and 45 percent an unfavorable one.
But that change may have been affected by a reordering of this particular set of questions, which at this point in general election cycles are typically placed near the top of the survey. Earlier during the primary season, the questions about favorability were placed lower on the survey after queries about presidential job approval and other topics.
As the focus of the campaign trail shifts to speculation over Mr. Romney’s choice of a running mate, only a quarter of voters say that choice matters a lot to their decision in November. Far more important, those surveyed said, are issues like the economy and jobs, health care, taxes, the deficit and national security — most of them areas in which Mr. Romney is roughly tied or has an advantage over Mr. Obama in the poll.
Voters gave Mr. Obama an advantage when it came to foreign policy and social issues.
Asked which candidate they believed would do a better job handling the economy and unemployment, 49 percent said Mr. Romney would, 41 percent said Mr. Obama would.
The drop in Mr. Obama’s economic approval ratings is consistent with a downturn in the percentage of Americans who believe the economy is getting better. While 33 percent said they saw improvement in April, 24 percent say they do now.
Nearly half of voters say the current economic plight stems from the policies of Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, which most voters expect Mr. Romney would return to if elected.
“Obama is in favor of getting rid of the Bush tax cuts,” said Daniel Moore, an independent from Verona, Pa., who says he plans to vote for Mr. Obama. “I feel those cuts were inappropriate back when they were instituted, and I think the effect on our economy is obvious.”