Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama are statistically tied with 43.6 percent and 43.2 percent support, respectively, among likely voters surveyed in the first head-to-head matchup conducted for The Washington Times/JZ Analytics poll, which nonetheless found more enthusiasm for the president's campaign than for the GOP's challenger.
The survey, taken Friday and Saturday of 800 likely voters, found both men winning their own partisans, and gave Mr. Romney a slight edge among independents.
But the sizable chunk of undecided voters — 13 percent — reflects a more volatile electorate than the last time an incumbent was running for re-election and a Massachusetts politician was seeking to unseat him, said John Zogby, the pollster who conducted the survey.
"It's tied. That's pretty much where we are. The poll reveals what everybody feels," Mr. Zogby said. "Back in 2004, which in so many ways was a similar kind of race, we were already at 47-47, 48-48, and those numbers hardly moved. But here we are, 44-44. There's a lot of dynamics here."
Adding a third-party candidate, Libertarian nominee Gary E. Johnson, into the equation changes the race slightly to give Mr. Obama a 1 percentage-point advantage over Mr. Romney, 44 percent to 43 percent. Mr. Johnson himself collects a little more than 2 percent support.
The closeness of the race is in line with other national polls. The RealClearPolitics.com average of polls gives Mr. Obama a 2 percentage-point lead over Mr. Romney in a two-man race.
One critical dynamic at work this year is that Democrats are more enthusiastic about Mr. Obama than Republicans are about Mr. Romney.
Of those backing Mr. Obama, 64 percent said it is because they feel he deserves to be re-elected, while only 11 percent said they are trying to deny Mr. Romney the spot, another 11 percent said they are supporting the nominated Democrat, and 9 percent said the president is the "lesser of two evils."
Mr. Zogby said Mr. Obama is doing fine in most categories except young voters — those under 30 — with whom he only has a 5 percentage-point advantage over Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.
Still, Mr. Romney suffers from a lack of enthusiasm. Less than half of his backers said they are supporting him because they think he is the best candidate. Nearly 20 percent said they are voting to deny Mr. Obama another term, and an additional 19 percent said Mr. Romney is the "lesser of two evils." A final 10 percent said they are backing whomever the GOP offered up.
One factor shaping the race is the expectations game: More than half of contacted voters still expect Mr. Obama to win the election, compared with 37 percent who think Mr. Romney will be victorious.
That stems from the lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Romney, said Mr. Zogby: "The passion is missing from the campaign, and the voters are feeling that lack of passion. As part of the fact that people expect Obama to win, there is an expectation that Romney will lose."
Voters also overwhelmingly think the news media is on Mr. Obama's side, with 56 percent of them saying the media wants to see him re-elected. Strong majorities of both independents and Republicans suspect the press is rooting for Mr. Obama, and even a plurality of Democrats think reporters and editors want to see the president gain another term.
In 2008 the GOP's nominee, Sen. John McCain, issued a stinging attack on the press that appeared to help solidify conservative voters behind his campaign. Mr. Romney has not issued the same sort of attack this year, though in a speech to editors in early April he pleaded for fair, in-depth coverage.
"I find myself missing the presence of editors to exercise quality control. I miss the days of two or more sources for a story — when at least one source was actually named," he said.
Mr. Obama, speaking to the editors a day earlier, was greeted with a standing ovation for his remarks — a response that drew the ire of a number of conservative commentators.
On some of the big issues on voters' minds, Mr. Obama leads in most categories: Handling national security (47 percent to 44 percent), solving immigration problems (46 percent to 40 percent), handling foreign affairs (48 percent to 43 percent) and solving energy concerns (46 percent to 45 percent).
But in an election in which the economy is seen as paramount, Mr. Romney retains a substantial advantage, 52 percent to 41 percent, over the incumbent. Among independents, that edge expands to 20 percentage points, 53 percent to 33 percent.
When it comes to specific issues, voters seem to think Mr. Obama's health care law is in trouble: Only 9 percent think the Supreme Court will uphold the law's constitutionality entirely. Twenty-nine percent said they expect the court to strike down some, 17 percent said most of it will be stricken, and 29 percent said they expect the court to invalidate the law in its entirety.
In oral arguments earlier this year, the justices seemed to take a dim view of the law's individual mandate requiring all Americans to obtain health insurance coverage. Debate on the fate of the rest of the law was more complex, though, with some justices saying the individual mandate could be separated out, and others arguing the law is too carefully balanced to trim parts and leave the rest intact.
And on immigration — an issue that has twisted both Congress and the presidential candidates in knots as they search for a solution to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country — voters remain deeply divided.
The poll offered voters three choices: Granting a path to citizenship, granting legal status but no chance for citizenship, and requiring illegal immigrants to return home.
The winner was the third option, sending them home, with 45 percent support. Offering a path to citizenship collected 33 percent support, while offering legal status without citizenship garnered just 9 percent. Nearly 13 percent of voters weren't sure what the solution should be.
The poll of 800 voters was conducted by telephone on Friday and Saturday, and results are weighted to achieve demographic variables. The poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
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