Heartland Monitor Poll: Obama Leads 50 Percent to 43 Percent

Ronald Brownstein

President Obama has opened a solid lead over Mitt Romney by largely reassembling the “coalition of the ascendant” that powered the Democrat to his landmark 2008 victory, the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll has found.

The survey found Obama leading Romney by 50 percent to 43 percent among likely voters, with key groups in the president’s coalition such as minorities, young people, and upscale white women providing him support comparable to their levels in 2008.

The survey, conducted by Ed Reilly and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Communications, a communications and strategic consulting firm, surveyed 1,055 likely voters by landline and cell phone from Sept. 15-19. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Full results from the survey, including a detailed look at Americans’ attitudes about opportunity and upward mobility, will be released in the Sept. 22 National Journal.

The Heartland Monitor’s results are in line with most other national surveys in recent days showing Obama establishing a measurable lead, including this week’s new Pew Research Center and NBC/Wall Street Journal polls. The saving grace for Republicans is that even as these surveys show Obama opening a consistent advantage, the president has not been able to push his support much past the critical 50 percent level, even after several difficult weeks for Romney that began with a poorly reviewed GOP convention. That suggests the president faces continued skepticism from many voters that could allow Romney to draw a second wind if he can stabilize his tempest-tossed campaign.

The poll found Obama benefiting from a small increase in optimism about the country’s direction. Among likely voters, 37 percent said the country was moving in the right direction. Even looking at all adults, the "right track" number now stands at 35 percent, its best showing since the April 2010 Heartland Monitor.

Obama’s approval rating in the new survey also ticked up to 50 percent, with 46 percent disapproving. That’s a slight improvement from May, when the survey of all adults found 47 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving. Among all adults, Obama’s rating improved to 49 percent approving and 45 percent disapproving, also one of his best showings since January 2010.

Those gains are critical, because as always with an incumbent president, attitudes toward Obama’s performance powerfully shape the race. Among likely voters who approve of Obama’s job performance, he leads Romney in the ballot test by 93 percent to 3 percent; those who disapprove prefer Romney by 87 percent to 5 percent.

Race remains a jagged dividing line in attitudes about Obama’s performance. Just 40 percent of white likely voters give him positive job-approval marks, unchanged since May. But fully 77 percent of nonwhites say they approve of Obama’s work, up sharply from 64 percent in May.

The same stark racial divide runs through preferences in the November election. For Obama, the formula for success in 2012 can be reduced to a single equation: 80-40. If he can hold the combined 80 percent he won among all minorities in 2008, and they represent at least the 26 percent of ballots they cast last time, then he can assemble a national majority with support from merely about 40 percent of whites.

On both fronts, the survey shows the president almost exactly hitting that mark. He leads Romney among all nonwhite voters by 78 percent to 18 percent, drawing over nine in 10 African-Americans and slightly more than the two-thirds of Hispanics he carried last time.

Among whites, Obama wins 41 percent compared to Romney’s 51 percent. Obama’s showing is down slightly from the 43 percent among whites he attracted in 2008 but still enough for the president to prevail in both sides’ calculations. With more whites than non-whites either undecided or saying they intend to support another candidate, Romney is not nearly approaching the roughly three-in-five support among them he’ll likely need to win.

The survey identifies 73 percent of likely voters as white, down from 74 percent in 2008; the remaining 27 percent were either nonwhite or refused to identify their race. In a close race, even such tiny shifts in the share of the vote cast by whites and nonwhites could prove decisive.

The potential for the minority share of the vote to increase even slightly in 2012 underscores the demographic trends helping Obama to withstand a stiff headwind of economic discontent. In 2008, I described his voting base as a “coalition of the ascendant” because he performed best among groups that are themselves growing in society.

The new survey shows him largely recapturing the 2008 support he generated among the key groups in that coalition. Among voters ages 18-29, members of the enormous Millennial Generation, Obama now leads Romney by 63 percent to 27 percent. That’s comparable to the 66 percent he won among those younger voters in 2008, and a big improvement from his 44 percent among them in the May Heartland Monitor. (The new poll also found Obama winning exactly half of whites under 30, down only modestly from 2008.)

The second central pillar of his coalition of the ascendant is minorities, where his support, as noted, is nearly matching its 80 percent level from 2008.

The third central piece of his coalition is college-educated whites, particularly women. In 2008, Obama won 47 percent of college-educated whites; the new poll shows him slipping only slightly to 45 percent among them. While Obama has lost ground among college-educated men (dropping to 39 percent in the new survey from 43 percent in 2008), he remains very strong with college-educated white women, drawing 50 percent of them (compared to his 52 percent in 2008). Over the past three decades, those women have been the fastest-growing part of the white electorate.

Compared with the May Heartland Monitor, Obama has seen big increases among those three key elements of his coalition: young people, minorities, and college-educated white women. But he also has stood his ground with the toughest group for him: blue-collar whites.

In the new survey, Romney leads Obama among non-college whites by 54 percent to 37 percent, almost exactly the same margin as McCain’s 18-percentage-point advantage over the president with those voters in 2008 (when they backed the Republican by 58 percent to 40 percent). The new poll shows Obama winning only 39 percent of non-college white men and 35 percent of non-college white women; but to overcome Obama’s other strengths, Romney will need to generate even larger margins with those voters. In fact, Obama’s performance with those working-class whites has slightly improved since the May survey.

By contrast, despite all the controversy over the plan to restructure Medicare promoted by Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, white seniors remain a very tough audience for the president: The poll shows Romney winning almost three-fifths of them, matching McCain’s strong showing in 2008.

The survey also shows why it may be difficult for Republicans to center the election on the famous Ronald Reagan question to voters that the party highlighted at its national convention last month: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

That question divides likely voters almost exactly in thirds: in the poll, 31 percent say they are better off than four years ago, while 34 percent say they are worse off and 34 percent say they are about the same. Romney, predictably, wins more than four-fifths of voters who say they are worse off; the president, equally unsurprisingly, attracts almost nine in 10 of those who consider themselves better off.

Crucially, though, Obama holds a commanding 57 percent to 34 percent advantage among those who say their finances are unchanged. One reason for that critical tilt in his direction: Voters who say their finances are unchanged also say, by a resounding 53 percent to 33 percent margin, that they believe the country has been better off over these past four years because Obama, rather than another candidate, won in 2008.

Overall, 48 percent say they believe the country is better off because Obama won in 2008, while 41 percent say the nation would be in a stronger position today if another candidate had won.

In a related finding, 47 percent of likely voters said they believed Obama’s economic policies helped “avoid an even worse economic crisis and are laying the foundation for our eventual economic recovery.” By contrast, 45 percent said that his agenda has “run up a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession or slow the record pace of job losses.” That’s hardly a ringing endorsement and well within the survey’s margin of error — but it represents only the second time since the Heartland Monitor began asking that question in September 2009 that a plurality has attributed positive effects to Obama’s agenda.

Taken together, all of these small movements toward Obama have produced, at least for now, a tangible advantage for the president over Romney as the race hurtles toward its final weeks.

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