The latest and last NPR Battleground Poll for 2012 shows former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holding the narrowest of leads in the national sample, but trailing President Obama in the dozen states that will decide the election.
The poll adds evidence that the Oct. 3 debate between the two men redefined the race. But the movement toward Romney that emerged after that night in Denver also seems to have stalled after the race drew even — leaving the outcome difficult to call.
The former governor had a 1 percentage point lead overall in the head-to-head preference poll. The president led by 4 percentage points in the smaller sample of 466 voters in 12 states: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. Both the Romney lead and the Obama lead were within the poll's margin of error.
Previous NPR Polls
That was a mirror image of the result of the first NPR poll in July, which found the Democrat ahead by 2 points in the national poll of likely voters, but tied with his Republican rival in the battleground at 46 percent each.
A second NPR poll, released on the day of the Denver debate, found the president had opened a 7-point lead nationally and a 6-point lead in the battleground. That poll included slightly more voters who identified themselves as Democrats than had the first poll or the one just completed.
The poll was the third conducted by this year's iteration of the NPR bipartisan polling team. The Republican pollster Whit Ayres of Resurgent Republic was joined in the effort by Democratic counterpart Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps (and the firm of Greenberg, Quinlan & Rosner). Their joint report was based on interviews with 1,000 likely voters conducted from Tuesday through Thursday last week (Oct. 23-25). The margin of error for such a poll is 3 percentage points for the national sample and 4.5 percentage points for the smaller sub-sample (462 respondents) in the battleground states.
Four weeks earlier, just before the first debate in Denver, the NPR team produced a report showing the president ahead by 7 points nationally and by 6 points in the battleground. That poll included a higher-than-usual elevated number of respondents who identified themselves as Democrats (7 points more than Republicans). The current poll shows those identifying with each of the two major parties to be closer to even (4 points).
Romney Gains Among Independents
Romney forces have maintained throughout October that the Denver debate transformed the dynamics of the race, and by some measures the former Massachusetts governor has been on the march. But after closing the gap between himself and the president, Romney's gains seemed to hit a wall — at least temporarily.
Ayres, the Republican half of the NPR polling team, said most of the gains for Romney had come among independents, who went from favoring Romney by a few points before the debates to favoring him 51 percent to 39 percent after the debates. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama won among independent voters.
"So were it not for the debates," Ayres concluded, "I think Obama would be cruising to a victory right now. Because of the debates, this is going to be an incredibly close election."
There is direct evidence for that in the NPR poll, which found 34 percent saying the debates made them more likely than they had been to vote for Romney. Just 28 percent said the debates made them more likely to vote for the president.
Favorable Attitudes Toward Obama
But Ayres' Democratic counterpart, Greenberg, said he still saw the latest poll as evidence the president would be re-elected.
"For me the main takeaway is Barack Obama will be president if this poll holds," he said.
While conceding that the debates had helped Romney establish himself with a slice of the electorate, Greenberg insisted the real battle was in the target states where the president still maintains a small lead. He called it "the kind of lead that could allow you to be re-elected as president."
The battleground offers some support for Greenberg's view, because attitudes toward the president are better there (54 percent favorable to 44 percent unfavorable) and attitudes toward Romney are worse (46 percent favorable to 49 percent unfavorable).
Both pollsters agreed the element of Hurricane Sandy and the protracted coverage of storm damage and cleanup would distract voters in the final days of the campaign. The aftermath of the storm may also make it more difficult for early voting to continue as it has in some Eastern states, and even more difficult than usual for pollsters to reach voters to interview.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A new NPR poll of likely voters shows Mitt Romney leading President Obama by one point nationally. But in the battleground states, the president is still ahead by four points. The poll finds that a lot has changed in the race since our last poll was taken right before the presidential debates began. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson has more.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Our survey shows a significant shift to Mitt Romney. Our last poll had him trailing the president by seven points nationally. Now he's leading by one. And as Whit Ayres - the Republican half of our polling team - points out, all the movement has come from one group of voters: independents.
WHIT AYRES: In the last NPR survey taken right before the first presidential debate, Romney held only a four-point lead among independents, at 46-42. In this survey, Romney leads Obama among independents by 12 points at 51-39. So if these numbers hold, that would be a huge shift to Republican candidate.
LIASSON: But there are two distinct universes in our poll. Nationally, Romney is ahead by a hair. But the president has a four-point lead in the 12 states where the candidates are spending their time and money. It was six points in our previous poll. Our Democratic pollster is Stan Greenberg.
STAN GREENBERG: For me, the main takeaway is that Barack Obama will be president of the United States if this poll holds. So it's just a slight narrowing. But it doesn't change the fact that in the battleground states, it's still a lead, and it's the kind of lead that could allow you to be reelected as president.
LIASSON: Whit Ayres says for Romney, the big question is whether his momentum has stalled or will continue long enough to catch up to the president by next Tuesday. Part of Romney's strategy is to convince voters that he does have the big mo. On the stump, he says the debates have supercharged his campaign.
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MITT ROMNEY: What you're seeing across these country as we've had these debates, and as Paul and I have gone across the nation, you're seeing this movement growing.
LIASSON: The Obama campaign claims it always expected a razor-close race, maybe like 2000 when al gore lost Florida by 537 votes. It's running this ad trying to use the memory of that loss to get its supporters to the polls.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So, this year, if you're thinking that your vote doesn't count, that it won't matter, well, back then, there were probably at least 537 people who felt the same way.
LIASSON: The debates have made a huge difference in the race. Among battleground voters, 33 percent said they were more likely to vote for Romney because of the debates, and 28 percent said they were more likely to vote for the president. That's a five-point margin for Romney. And, says Whit Ayres, for independents in particular, the debates were a watershed moment.
AYRES: The problem for Obama was not just the first debate - his snarky condescension in the third debate. We now have these ships that go underwater, governor, reflects exactly what independents hate about our politics. So, were it not for the debates, I think Obama would be cruising to a victory right now. Because of the debates, this is going to be an incredibly close election.
LIASSON: The debates turned the election from a choice back into a referendum on the president, which Ayres thinks Mr. Obama will have a hard time winning. Stan Greenberg disagrees.
GREENBERG: I grant that Romney has improved his image from the first debate on. So I think it's important to why his numbers have moved nationally. But it's interesting: in the battleground, where the advertising has been fought from an early point and where he's been defined, he still has a minus-10 on his image, which is part of why he's having trouble closing the deal where you elect the president of the United States.
LIASSON: Among battleground voters in our survey, the president is seen favorably: 54- 44 percent. But Romney's favorability, while greatly improved nationally, is still upside-down in the battleground: 46 percent favorable and 49 percent unfavorable. That suggests that despite his strong showing in the debates, Romney still hasn't wiped away the effects of the Obama campaign attack ads. There aren't many events left on the calendar that could affect the race in the remaining seven days. There is the final jobs report due out Friday. And there's Hurricane Sandy. Stan Greenberg says the weather will dominate the news. It's an enormous distraction for millions of voters.
GREENBERG: They're going to be focused on this quite massive storm and tragedy. You're also going to have the president working to address a crisis. I don't think it's a big factor, but he is the president of the United States, so probably marginally helpful for the president. On the other hand, there's power losses and there's, you know, impact on who actually goes to the polls, ultimately. And so who knows how it plays out in the end.
LIASSON: One effect of the storm is easy to predict: It will disrupt the work of political pollsters who will now have trouble reaching the millions of Americans that Hurricane Sandy leaves without electricity or phone service. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: And for full poll results, go to npr.org.
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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.