President Obama and Mitt Romney are deadlocked with each holding 49 percent support nationally as they head into Tuesday's election, though Mr. Romney holds a lead on enthusiasm, according to this week's The Washington Times/Zogby Poll of likely voters, released Thursday night.
Mr. Obama has more votes already in the bank: About a quarter of those surveyed said they've cast their ballots by absentee or early voting, and they broke 53 percent to 45 percent in favor of the president.
But Mr. Romney, the Republican nominee, leads when it comes to those who have yet to hit the polling booth but who said they are certain or very likely to make it on Tuesday — suggesting that his key to victory is persuading his backers to actually turn out next week.
When it comes to issues, the president leads when voters are asked about foreign affairs, national security, energy and immigration, but Mr. Romney has a lead when it comes to handling jobs and the economy, which have dominated this year's election.
"It's what brings it to a tie — the fact that he does better on the economy," said John Zogby, The Times' pollster, who said it reminded him of the 2004 race, when Democratic nominee John F. Kerry led President George W. Bush on every issue except for national security, where the incumbent held a commanding lead, which powered him to re-election.
The final piece of economic data will come Friday morning when the Labor Department releases the October jobs report, detailing the unemployment rate. Early indications showed a modest number of new jobs added last month, though whether that would lead to a lower unemployment rate is still in doubt.
Last month, the rate stood at 7.8 percent — the exact same level as when Mr. Obama took office.
Voters remain divided on whether they are better off now than they were four years ago, with 46 percent saying "yes" and 47 percent saying "no." The partisan split, though, is staggering: 74 percent of Democrats said they are better off, while 81 percent of Republicans said they are not. Independents are split down the middle.
That divide underscores another conclusion from the latest polling: Both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama are seeing their base voters come home.
The president has a tremendous lead among black voters and garners support of 78 percent of Hispanics, which would put him ahead of his 2008 performance with that fast-growing voting bloc. White voters, though, are increasingly backing Mr. Romney, who now claims support of 60 percent of them.
The poll of 800 self-identified likely voters was taken Oct. 29 to 31. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Mr. Zogby said the hurricane that struck the Northeast did not likely affect the broad conclusions of the poll, which is in line with other surveys that show a very tight race.
Adding in third-party candidates does nothing to change the dynamic.
Libertarian Party nominee Gary E. Johnson gets 2 percent support and Green Party candidate Jill Stein collects 1 percent support, leaving Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney still tied at 48 percent to 48 percent.
Republicans point to the fact that Mr. Obama has struggled to hit the 50 percent support level.
"Obama isn't even close to 50 percent of the vote. In fact, again, going back to Real Clear Politics, since the first debate, there have been 24 national surveys done since the first debate, and just one of them has shown Obama at 50 percent of the vote. That's just one," Neil Newhouse, the Romney campaign's pollster, told reporters on Wednesday.
Democrats, though, argued that Mr. Obama has leads in more than enough battleground states to put together the Electoral College map he'll need to win re-election.
"Let's be clear: This is a race to 270 electoral votes. And we understand the map that we — or the several maps that we need to get there," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters.
The Times/Zogby poll has consistently showed a tight race nationally, with the exception of late September, when Mr. Obama notched a 9-point lead amid a very bad month for Mr. Romney.
But in October, Mr. Romney rebounded, benefiting from a powerful first debate performance.
By the end of the three presidential debates and one vice presidential faceoff, voters said the two sides tied overall.
Only about 15 percent of voters said the debates affected their voting decision, with Mr. Romney benefiting slightly — but other cues suggested Mr. Romney got more subtle boosts.
Chief among those was enthusiasm, which The Times/Zogby Poll measured by asking whether each candidate's supporters were backing him because he was the best for the job, or because they opposed the other guy.
Back in May, when Mr. Romney had first sewn up the GOP's nomination, 64 percent of Mr. Obama's supporters said he was the best for the job, while just 48 percent of Mr. Romney's backers thought the same of him.
Since then, however, Mr. Obama has slid to just 59 percent of his supporters who are backing him because he's the best candidate. Meanwhile, 66 percent of Mr. Romney's backers say he's the right pick for the job — a stunning turnaround that signals an enthusiasm gap.
Voters do still rate Mr. Obama more trustworthy, and do have questions about Mr. Romney's claim that he can cut income-tax rates by 20 percent across the board, boost military spending, and still balance the budget without raising other taxes on the middle class.
Nearly 48 percent of voters said Mr. Romney's math doesn't add up, while just 37 percent said it does. That 11-point gap is up from after the first debate, when voters were evenly split on whether Mr. Romney's plan added up.
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