Ten Key Insights Into the U.S. Presidential Election
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Ten Key Insights Into the U.S. Presidential Election

Each candidate has strengths in what is at this point a very close race

PRINCETON, NJ -- The Nov. 6 U.S. presidential election is now about 24 weeks away, and both major-party candidates continue their nonstop campaigning to win over the hearts, minds, and motivations of voters. Gallup has been measuring public opinion related to the election -- either directly or indirectly -- for well over a year now, and in this summary, Gallup editors evaluate 10 key indicators that shed light on where the election stands today.

1. President Barack Obama's job approval rating -- now 47% -- falls in the middle of the ranges of prior presidents seeking re-election in May. Obama's rating is perched well above Jimmy Carter's and George H.W. Bush's approval ratings of 38% and 41% at this time in 1980 and 1992, respectively -- approval ratings that foreshadowed their pending defeats. At the same time, Obama's rating is below the 50%-plus marks that, at this time in 1984 and 1996, foretold Ronald Reagan's and Bill Clinton's victories. Obama's approval rating most closely mimics the pattern of George W. Bush, whose rating was also 47% in late May 2004, but which rose to the 50%+ level later in the summer. Bush's final job approval rating before the 2004 election was 48%, and he won re-election by three percentage points in the popular vote.

Thus, Obama's job approval rating at this point forecasts neither an assured victory nor a probable defeat, but rather puts him at a historical midpoint that predicts a close election.

2. Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have been statistically tied among registered voters in Gallup's 2012 trial heat ballots for nearly a month now, providing no solid indication of who will prevail. However, in the last three elections in which a Democratic incumbent sought re-election (1996, 1980, and 1964), the Republican challenger did much better on the eve of the election among likely voters than among registered voters, suggesting Romney may have a structural advantage on that score if the race remains close among registered voters.

It is still too early in the election cycle for the trial heat ballot to be a solid predictor of the eventual course of the election. For example:

  • John Kerry led incumbent George W. Bush among registered voters in late May 2004 by two percentage points.
  • Incumbent George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot were tied at 35% apiece, 10 points ahead of Bill Clinton in May 1992.
  • Incumbent Carter led Reagan by eight points in May 1980.
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Thus, although voters today are closely divided on which candidate they would prefer to win, five months remain before Election Day -- a time that includes parties' conventions, presidential debates, and increasingly intense campaigning. Thus, it would not be unexpected or unprecedented if the race's character changes in the coming months.

3. Americans' overall mood about the state of the country is not favorable for an incumbent seeking re-election, given that a president's re-election partly depends on voters' satisfaction with his first four years in office. About one-quarter of Americans, 24%, are currently satisfied with the way things are going in the country, while 74% are dissatisfied. This is comparable to the dour mood found in 1992 before George W. Bush lost his re-election bid, and is far worse than that seen in 2004, 1996, and 1984, years in which each of the sitting presidents won. Still, the current satisfaction rating is more than double where it was last August and September.

The economy still dominates Americans' views of the nation's Most Important Problem, historically a negative sign for an incumbent seeking re-election.

All in all, Americans' relatively low satisfaction ratings, and the fact that the economy remains by far the top problem in voters' minds, present a formidable challenge for an incumbent president seeking re-election.

4. Americans are slightly more likely to say Romney would do a very good or good job of handling the economy than to say this about Obama, and are more likely to say the economy will be in better shape during the next four years if Romney is elected than if Obama is elected. However, Americans' views of the economy can be subdivided into important and meaningful dimensions, and Romney and Obama vary in their perceived strengths on each (more detail on this below). Romney also has a slight advantage over Obama as the better manager of government.

5. Although the economy is the dominant election issue, Americans do not view economic problems monolithically. Among the issues Americans consider most important, Obama is seen as better able than Romney to handle healthcare costs, college costs, and living standards of the poor. Romney is preferred for handling economic growth, the federal budget deficit and debt, and improving returns on personal investments.

Neither candidate has an edge at this point on unemployment or housing, two of the issues Americans rate as most important. The lack of a consensus leader on the issue of unemployment is an important correlate of the close nature of the race at this point; the candidate who can begin to out-position his opponent on jobs may ultimately have the highest probability of winning.

6. Americans are much more likely to choose Obama (60%) than Romney (31%) as the more "likable" candidate. At the same time, since Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee, his favorable rating, now 50%, has moved up to a level essentially on par with Obama's 52%. How necessary it is to be seen in a personally favorable light in order to win an election is not precisely determinable, though in recent elections, the candidate with the higher favorable rating has won. Thus, it remains to be seen whether Americans will elect the candidate they believe is more likable, or whether likability is a threshold factor -- so that as long as Romney is likable enough, the issue won't be a major liability for him.

7. Adding to his likability advantage, Obama also leads Romney in voter perceptions of who cares more about the needs of ordinary Americans and who is the stronger and more decisive leader. The latter presidential quality could be a valuable asset for Obama as a way to balance the softer side of his image, potentially broadening his appeal beyond his Democratic base. Obama's stronger marks on this dimension may reflect his having been in a highly visible leadership position for over three years, coupled with his decisions on such foreign policy issues as approving the successful Navy Seals operation to kill Osama bin Laden.

8. Obama's positioning as caring about the needs of ordinary Americans, and other evidence showing that he is seen as the candidate best able to address the needs of the poor, fits in well with his electoral base. The groups giving Obama his highest support at this point include blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and -- among whites -- those who are nonreligious, those who are single or living in a domestic partnership, and the young. White Americans with postgraduate educations and professionals, groups that are more liberal than other Americans, also heavily favor Obama.

9. Romney's core electoral strength -- as has been the case for Republican presidential candidates in recent elections -- is with non-Hispanic white Americans in general, among whom he is currently winning over Obama by a sizable margin. Within the white voter population, Romney does best among those who are religious, those who are married or have been married, and those who have anywhere from a high school to a college education but no postgraduate education.

10. Americans -- regardless of whom they personally support -- see Obama as the odds-on favorite to win the election, something that has generally corresponded with eventual victory in past elections. Americans' lopsided perceptions that Obama will win, 56% vs. 36%, could in part reflect the fact that Romney has not yet had the opportunity to define his candidacy after his competitive primary season, although he has been the presumptive nominee for well over a month at this point. It may also be that Americans' natural tendency is to think the incumbent will win re-election, which since World War II has been true 70% of the time.

Bottom Line

Not only are overall voter preferences in the 2012 presidential election closely split at this point, but Obama and Romney each have important strengths and weaknesses in their images and issue ratings. Obama is running into economic headwinds, with Americans still highly concerned about the state of the economy, and, as a result, largely dissatisfied with the country's direction. Still, his overall job approval rating is not as low as that of other presidents who faced re-election during a difficult economy.

At the same time, Obama is better liked than his opponent and comes across as someone who cares about average Americans. In fact, some might argue that these strengths are helping to lift his approval rating higher than it might otherwise be, given the economy. Obama is also preferred over Romney for being a strong leader. Those are all valuable calling cards with voters.

Romney's advantages, on the other hand, are mainly economic in nature. He is preferred for handling the economy and federal budget deficit -- both high on Americans' list of issue priorities. And he's slightly more likely to be seen as the better manager. While his favorable rating isn't high, it has improved to match Obama's, which may be sufficient to win if Americans' vote choice is guided mainly by their pocketbooks.

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