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NBC/WSJ poll: Obama, Romney locked in tight contest

Larry Downing / Reuters

President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference after the 2012 NATO Summit at McCormick Place in Chicago, May 21, 2012.

Despite a volatile and eventful past few weeks in the early presidential contest, President Barack Obama continues to hold a small – and slightly narrowing – lead over Mitt Romney, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

But given the public’s pessimism about the economy and the direction of the country, Romney finds himself well within striking distance in an election that has the potential to be as close as the 2004 race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry.

“Obama’s chances for re-election ... are no better than 50-50,” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican Bill McInturff.

“So much has happened, and so little has changed,” Hart adds. “And it tells you this is a dead-even race.”

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This poll – which was taken after the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, Obama’s announcement in support of gay marriage, fresh economic worries about Europe, and last month’s tepid jobs report – shows the Democrat leading Romney by four points among registered voters, 47 percent to 43 percent.

In April, Obama’s edge in the survey was two points higher, 49 percent to 43 percent.

In the newest poll, Obama leads Romney among African Americans (88 percent to 2 percent), 18 to 34 year olds (55 percent to 35 percent), women (53 percent to 38 percent), independents (44 percent to 36 percent), and seniors (46 percent to 44 percent).

Romney, meanwhile, holds the advantage with whites (52 percent to 39 percent), men (49 percent to 40 percent), suburban residents (47 percent to 41 percent), Midwest residents (48 percent to 43 percent), and high-interest voters (47 percent to 44 percent). 

Down on the economy and nation’s direction
Yet attitudes about the economy and country’s direction appear to give Romney more than a puncher’s chance to make up his deficits against Obama.

Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

Mitt Romney speaks to supporters in front of Sawyer Bridge during a campaign event in Hillsborough, N.H., May 18, 2012.


Only 33 percent of respondents believe the economy will get better in the next year, which is down five points from April, and seven points from March. In addition, approval of Obama’s handling of the economy stands at 43 percent, down two points from last month.

“It feels a little tick worse” than it was earlier in the year, GOP pollster McInturff said about the economy.

What’s more, just a third of respondents think the nation is headed in the right direction, which is virtually unchanged from this year's previous NBC/WSJ polls (but remains significantly higher than late last year, after Washington’s debt-ceiling showdown).

Read the full poll here (.pdf)

And by a 48 to 45 percent margin, they think the U.S. is experiencing a long-term decline versus ordinarily tough times, while another 63 percent aren’t confident that life for their children will be better than it’s been for them.

Obama’s high marks – and low ones
But Americans also give Obama high marks on key issues. By a 54 to 13 percent margin, they say his approach and policies have made the Iraq war better.

By a 48 to 18 percent margin, they say he’s improved the war in Afghanistan. And by 47 to 18 percent margin, they say he’s helped the U.S. auto industry.

But respondents give him negative marks on the budget deficit (47 percent say he’s made things worse), health care (43 percent), partisanship in politics (39 percent) the economy (37 percent) and the housing market (32 percent).

Politico's Roger Simon explains the impact of demographics on an election and whether it's more important than likability, and issues.

The president’s overall job-approval rating in the poll stands at 48 percent, which is virtually unchanged from April, and his foreign-policy handling is at 51 percent.

Advantages for Romney – and doubts about him
The NBC/WSJ poll also shows that respondents believe that Romney’s business background is an asset that can be applied to several issues.

Nearly 60 percent say that business background can be a major or minor advantage for improving the country’s economic and job conditions, and nearly six in 10 say it could help to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Another 57 percent believe it could be an advantage in signing trade deals with foreign countries.

But doubts remain about Romney. While just 32 percent say they are either “extremely” or “quite” confident that Obama has the right policies and goals for the country, only 19 percent say the same about Romney.

And regarding Romney’s past work at the private-equity firm Bain Capital, the poll shows that 9 percent have a positive view of the firm and 19 percent have a negative view; 53 percent either weren’t sure or weren’t familiar with it.

In the last two weeks, the Obama campaign has pointed to examples where Bain – under Romney’s leadership – took over companies, saddled them with debt, laid off workers, all while making big profits for the investors.

A replay of 2004?
Given all of these different elements – the president’s approval rating, attitudes about the country’s direction and economy, doubts about the challenger – this presidential race looks very similar to the 2004 one between Bush and Kerry.

According to the May 2004 NBC/WSJ poll, Bush’s approval rating was 47 percent (Obama’s is 48 percent); just 33 percent thought the nation was headed in the right direction (33 percent say that now); and approval of Bush's handling of the economy was at 41 percent (Obama’s is 43 percent).

Read the full poll here (.pdf)

And also in May 2004, Bush was leading Kerry by three points, 48 percent to 45 percent (Obama is now leading Romney by four points).

Hart, the Democratic pollster, sees this additional parallel to 2004: Both Democrats and Republicans will spend an enormous amount of money to influence a sliver of undecided voters.

Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, Hart says, “Never will so much money be spent to persuade so few.”

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted May 16-20 of 1,000 adults (250 reached by cell phone), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points; among registered voters, the margin of error is plus-minus 3.4 percentage points.

NBC’s Domenico Montanaro contributed to this story.