A widening gender gap, modest economic gains, an edge on key issues and broad advantages in personal popularity are boosting Barack Obama's re-election prospects. Yet Mitt Romney, moving to close the deal in his own party, holds opportunities of his own for the road ahead.
Obama has returned to a single-digit lead vs. Romney in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 51-44 percent among registered voters, after a virtual dead heat last month. That includes Obama's largest margin to date among women, 57-38 percent. He trails by 8 points among men.
Underscoring that gender gap, Obama leads Romney by 19 points among all adults in trust to handle "women's issues," his single largest advantage among a dozen issues tested in this poll, which was produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates. That includes a 10-point lead for Obama on women's issues among men, growing to 27 points among women.
After an extended period of debate and political positioning on a range of issues of concern to women, there's also a sharp gender gap in the president's overall job approval rating - 13 points higher among women than men, another record in ABC/Post polls. Obama's 50 percent approval rating overall rests on positive views among 56 percent of women vs. 43 percent of men.
Other factors are at play. Obama leads Romney by significant margins in trust to handle six key issues in all, ranging from international affairs to protecting the middle class to handling social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Romney clearly leads on just one, handling the deficit. Obama also leads on a range of personal attributes, including by a vast 38 points in being seen as the more friendly and likable of the two and by 26 points as "more inspiring."
Among issues, the economy, and the broader sentiment it inspires, are key to the election. Today the fewest number of Americans in more than a year say the country is on the wrong track, nearly half say their local economy is improving and a sense that jobs are "very difficult" to find has eased by 14 percentage points from last summer.
In addition, approval of Obama's handling of the economy is up by 6 points from last month, "strong" disapproval has eased by 8 points from its record high and he leads Romney by 12 points as better understanding average Americans' economic problems.
ROMNEY - Yet there are opportunities for Romney. He now leads Rick Santorum by 20 percentage points among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents as the preferred candidate for the GOP nomination, up from a scant 2 points last month. Mopping up within his party gives Romney his first chance to turn his full fire on the incumbent.
While "wrong track" sentiment is down by 13 points since last fall, a still broad 64 percent of Americans say the country's off course. More, 76 percent, say that as far as they're concerned the economy still is in a recession. In perhaps Romney's strongest line of attack, 54 percent still disapprove of Obama's performance on the economy - 5 points lower than last month but a continuous majority since July 2010.
Head-to-head, Romney has 47 percent support, Obama 43 percent, in trust to handle the economy - not a statistically significant difference but an indication of Obama's vulnerability on this central concern. And they're essentially even (Obama +3) on trust to handle creating jobs.
Romney has made inroads against Obama on some issues compared with ABC/Post results in February. Obama then led by 20 points in trust to handle terrorism, 18 points on better protecting the middle class and 10 points on handling taxes. Those have eased to 7, 10 and 3 points now.
Romney may also find political fuel if gasoline prices continue to rise; while Obama escapes most direct blame (see Monday's analysis), 62 percent disapprove of how he's handling the price of gas, no worse than last month's 65 percent, but not substantively better, and broadly negative.
Romney, however, looks little better overall against Obama than does Santorum, who trails Obama by 52-42 percent among registered voters. That makes Romney's support in the general election look more anti-Obama, and generally pro-Republican, than specifically pro-Romney.
ECONOMY - Marking the interaction between political and economic sentiment, Obama, when tested against Romney, does far worse among people with more negative economic outlooks - e.g., among those who say jobs in their area are very hard to find (just 33 percent of registered voters in this group support Obama), who think the country's still in a recession (43 percent) or who say they're in the middle class, but struggling to remain there. In the latter group just 35 percent back Obama over Romney; among those who say they're comfortably in the middle class or moving up, by contrast, Obama's support jumps to 59 percent.
In these equations, perceptions of the economy's trajectory matters. Among registered voters who think the country's in a recession but climbing out of it, Obama leads Romney by more than 2-1, 66-30 percent. Among those who see a recession but without economic improvement in their area, by contrast, it's Romney by a similar margin, 68-27 percent.
GOP RACE - Romney, as noted, has made major strides in support for his party's nomination. He leads Santorum in preference to be the nominee by 42-22 percent among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, vs. 31-29 percent early last month.
Among those who don't currently support him, Romney leads as second choice, with 48 percent. Similarly, 52 percent of those who don't support Romney now nonetheless say they'd rather see him as the nominee than have the convention draft a new candidate entirely.
While 52 percent also say Santorum should stay in the contest, many fewer leaned Republicans, 27 and 32 percent, respectively, say that either Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul should remain in the race given their current standings. And even Santorum's support for continuing is fairly tepid; in May 2008, for comparison, many more leaned Democrats, 64 percent, said Hillary Clinton should keep running, despite then-mounting odds for Obama's nomination.
Economic credentials are a strength for Romney in the Republican contest, an issue, again, that he's likely to seek to turn to his advantage in the general election. Forty-eight percent of leaned Republicans pick him in trust to handle the economy, vs. 16 percent for Paul and just 12 percent apiece for Santorum and Gingrich.
Another measure, though, emphasizes difficulties Romney may face in motivating elements of his base in a general election campaign. Asked whom they trust more to handle social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, 29 percent of Republicans and party leaners pick Santorum, 27 percent Romney. (Romney, as noted, is about even with Obama among all Americans in trust to handle the economy, but trails him, by 8 points, in trust to deal with social issues.)
The public divides evenly, 38-39 percent, on the parlor-game question of whether the GOP contest has made Romney stronger, or weakened him, for a general election campaign. Partisanship informs these views: Leaned Republicans by a 24-point margin think the primary race has strengthened Romney; Democrats and their leaners, by 21 points, say it's made him weaker.
ATTRIBUTES - In any case, as he turns toward the general election, Romney's personal profile needs work. Previous ABC/Post polls have recorded his unusually weak favorability ratings, the lowest for a leading candidate in ABC/Post polls conducted during presidential primary seasons since 1984. And results in this survey extend those findings.
As noted, Obama leads Romney by 64-26 percent on who seems to be the more friendly and likable person. Notably, Romney leads by just 11 points on this attribute, 53-42 percent, even among Republicans, and by just 10 points among conservatives. Obama, by contrast, leads Romney on this score by more than 75 points among Democrats and liberals, and by 31 and 45 points, respectively, among independents and moderates.
In being seen as "more inspiring," similarly, it's a 55-29 percent Obama advantage, including a 22-point lead among independents, the key swing voters in national elections. And the president leads by 49-37 percent on better understanding the economic problems people are having.
In addition to his comparative shortfall in terms of the common touch, Romney trails Obama by 10 points in perceptions of who's been the most consistent in his positions, a frequent line of attack in the GOP primaries. They're close on two other attributes, being the stronger leader (46-40 percent, Obama-Romney) and having a clearer vision for the future (45-40 percent).
There's some vulnerability for Obama in another attribute: Thirty-nine percent of Americans see his views on the size and role of government as a major reason to oppose him, outnumbering the 22 percent who see this as major reason to support him - a 17-point net negative. (The rest, 34 percent, say it's not a major factor.) Obama's handling of the economy, for its part, is a 14-point net negative for him.
Far more don't rate either Romney's wealth or his Mormon religion as a factor in their vote preference - 71 and 80 percent, respectively. Among those who do, the former is a net negative for him by 13 points, the latter, by 10.
FAIRNESS - If Obama's views on the role of government are seen more negatively than positively, he has the edge on another aspect of this key debate: Americans by 52-37 percent see "unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy" as a bigger problem than "over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity."
That's similar to the division on this question in January - and it matters. Among the majority of registered voters who see system unfairness, Obama leads Romney by 70-27 percent. Among those more concerned with over-regulation, the tables turn to a 73-23 percent Romney lead.
ISSUES - While personal attributes matter, so does trust to handle specific issues. As noted, Obama currently leads Romney in trust to handle six items - women's issues (by 19 points), international affairs (by 17), protecting the middle class and dealing with health care policy (both by 10), social issues (by 8) and terrorism (by 7). (Obama's lead on health care policy is notable given the unpopularity of the federal health care law whose fate is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.)
The two candidates are close - 2 to 5 points between them - in trust to handle the economy, job creation, energy policy and taxes, and to support small businesses. Romney leads Obama by 13 points in trust to handle the federal deficit.
In another comparison, Obama and Romney are about evenly rated as being "about right" ideologically - Obama by 44 percent, Romney by 42 percent. But 40 percent call Obama "too liberal," more than the 33 percent who call Romney "too conservative" (more instead have no opinion of Romney on this question), giving the Republican more room to maneuver.
Notably, more Republicans think Obama is too liberal (76 percent) than the number of Democrats who think Romney's too conservative (57 percent). And 44 percent of independents see Obama as too liberal, vs. 29 percent who see Romney as overly conservative.
GENDER and RACE - Democratic candidates customarily do better among women than men in presidential elections, not least because women are more likely than men to associate themselves with the Democratic Party. Obama did 12 points better vs. John McCain among women than among men in the 2008 election (+13 points among women, +1 among men) - almost exactly matching the average (a 13-point differential for the Democrat) in exit polls since 1976.
Highs, computed in this way, were a 22-point gender gap in 2000 and 17 points in 1996 and 1980 alike. Today's figure is higher: Obama leads Romney by 19 points among women but trails by 8 among men, a 27-point difference.
White women, in particular, have shifted in Obama's direction since the last ABC/Post poll March 10. Among registered voters, white women then favored Romney over Obama by 55-38 percent; today they divide evenly, 47-48 percent. Preferences among white men, by contrast, are essentially unchanged, at 61-35 percent for Romney now, 63-33 percent a month ago.
The shift among white women enabled Obama this month to tie his high score against Romney among white registered voters, at 42-53 percent. Obama, by contrast, leads by very wide margins among nonwhites of both sexes, 78-19 percent.
METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 5-8, 2012, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. (Several questions included an oversample of an additional 100 African-American respondents.) Results have a margin of sampling error of 4.0 points for the full sample. The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.