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First Thoughts: Not your ordinary August poll

NBC's Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro break down the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

This isn’t your ordinary August poll; it looks more like October… The poll’s three macro-conclusions: 1) Obama has the advantage heading into the conventions, 2) he’s still below 50%, 3) Romney has work to do repairing his image… How our poll explains Romney’s welfare attack: He’s underperforming among white voters… NBC/WSJ/Telemundo oversample of Latino voters comes out at noon ET… The Akin story has become a mess for Republicans… And it also complicates their map to take control of the Senate… NYT says current Medicare patients would pay more if Romney restores those $716 billion in cuts… And Obama is in Las Vegas, while Romney stumps in Iowa.

*** Not your ordinary August poll: Our latest NBC/WSJ poll shows President Obama leading Mitt Romney by four points among registered voters, 48%-44%; it suggests that Romney didn't get much of a bounce after his VP pick; it finds that attitudes about the economy are still dogging the president; and it points to Romney maybe having steeper challenges when it comes to his likeability, perceptions about his compassion, and his plans for Medicare. But NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) makes this larger point about the numbers: This isn't your ordinary August poll -- it's more something you'd see in mid-October. That's because 1) the numbers have barely moved in the poll since the general election began in earnest in April, and 2) more than $500 million in TV ads have been dropped on these two candidates. After all, if you live in a battleground state, you've seen almost every negative ad that the campaigns and outside groups can produce. So when you look at the numbers, think of this as being October, but with the conventions and debates still to come.

NBC's Chuck Todd weighs in on U.S. Rep. Akin's decision  to stay in the Senate race and discusses how it could damage the GOP brand. The segment followed Akin's interview with TODAY's Matt Lauer.

*** Three macro-conclusions about the race: If you assume that this isn't your ordinary August poll -- where many opinions might already be locked in -- the survey offers three macro-conclusions. One, Obama holds the advantage heading into the conventions. “The election has moved from a referendum to a choice,” co-pollster Peter Hart (D) said. “Mitt Romney is starting to accumulate a number of negatives on the personal front and issues front.” Two, the president is still below that all-important 50% threshold for an incumbent. “When a guy gets stuck at 48%, it doesn’t mean they are out of the clear,” McInturff says. “It means they are in an incredibly competitive campaign.” And three, Romney has some work to do in selling himself at next week’s GOP convention. Per the poll, Obama has a 22-point lead (52%-30%) on caring about average people, as well as a 28-point advantage (52%-24%) on issues concerning women. These are what we call our “gut check” questions, and Romney is trailing here -- and trailing badly.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd breaks down the latest NBC News/ WSJ poll.

*** How our poll explains Romney’s welfare attack: Our new poll also might explain why the Romney campaign has been airing all of those TV ads on welfare (which the AP today says are “distorting the facts”) or why Paul Ryan was invoking “clinging to my guns and my religion” yesterday while campaigning in Pennsylvania. The reason: Romney is underperforming with white voters. According to the survey, Romney leads Obama among this demographic group by 13 points (53%-40%), but that isn’t much different than McCain’s 12-point edge in 2008 per the exit polls (55%-43%) -- and McCain decisively lost the election. Also in the poll, Romney leads Obama among white men by 19 points (not much different than McCain’s 16 points) and among white women by eight points (McCain’s advantage was seven). If Romney is going to win in November, he needs to EXPAND those margins. And here’s why: If you assume that whites make up 74% of the electorate like they did in ’08 (and there’s a good argument to make that, because of the Latino growth, it will be less than that), then Obama winning 90%-plus of the black vote, 67% of the Latino vote, and 40% of the white vote gets him past 50%.

*** Injecting race into the campaign: So today, the Romney campaign is commemorating the 16th anniversary of welfare reform being signed into law. “[D]on’t expect President Obama to mark the occasion after just last month gutting the historic work requirements,” the campaign said in a statement. But that AP piece mentioned above notes how the welfare attack injects the issue of race in the presidential campaign. “It could open Romney up to criticism that he is injecting race into the campaign and seeking to boost support among white, working-class voters by charging that the nation’s first black president is offering a free pass to recipients of a program stereotypically associated with poor African-Americans. And Romney runs the risk of denting his credibility with voters by peddling an argument that has been widely debunked.” Steve Lombardo, a GOP pollster who worked on Romney’s 2008 campaign said this to AP: “It’s a tacit acknowledgement that it’s not enough to just hammer the economy. That will get you to 46, 47 percent, but it won’t get you to 51 percent.”

*** Here are some more numbers from our NBC/WSJ poll: Obama’s approval rating stands at 48% (which matches his ballot number); just 32% think the country is headed in the right direction; 36% say the info they’ve heard about Mitt Romney’s taxes has given them a more negative impression of the candidate (versus 6% who say more positive); Romney has an six-point edge (44%-38%) on which candidate has better ideas for improving the economy; and Democrats lead by five points on the generic congressional ballot, 47%-42%, which is something to watch. And a quick note: At noon ET, we will debut our monthly NBC/WSJ/Telemundo oversample of Latino voters.

Evan Vucci / AP

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney shakes hands as he arrives for a campaign rally, Monday, Aug. 20, 2012, in Manchester N.H.

*** The Akin story has become a mess for the GOP: There is really no other way to put it: The entire Todd Akin story has become an unequivocal mess for the Republican Party. Consider: This is THE STORY just days before the GOP convention, drawing attention to the GOP’s platform on abortion; Akin -- so far -- is remaining in the race, despite pleas from party leaders like Mitt Romney; and he even went on “TODAY” this morning, saying, per NBC’s Jamie Novogrod: "I think that anybody who's doing a lot of public speaking can make a mistake. The people of my state … knew I wasn't perfect." Indeed, Akin may be doing as much damage to the GOP brand right now BEFORE the convention as Pat Buchanan’s famous 1992 speech did AT the convention. But writing in National Journal, Matthew Dowd makes a very good point about the entire Akin affair. “Make no mistake, the calls for Akin’s resignation likely had nothing to do with the substance of his remarks -- keep in mind, the Republican platform has a call for a ban on abortion even in cases of rape. They had nothing to do with the fact that Akin has long held out-of-the-mainstream positions on many issues and made numerous extremely conservative statements. Akin’s mistake was that by opening his mouth with crazy talk … made it much harder for Republicans to win a sure Senate seat pickup with him on the ballot.”

*** It also complicates their map to win back the Senate: And if Republicans don’t win Missouri’s Senate contest, it essentially means they have to run the table on the remaining toss-up Senate races to win back the majority (if Obama wins re-election and if Angus King wins in Maine and caucuses with the Dems). The GOP would have to sweep Nebraska, North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, and one of Florida or Virginia. And if Elizabeth Warren wins in Massachusetts -- which is a 50%-50% prospect -- then the GOP would have to win BOTH of Florida and Virginia.

*** On those $716 billion in Medicare cuts: Turning to the fight over Medicare, this is a rough New York Times headline for the Romney campaign: “Patients Would Pay More if Romney Restores Medicare Savings, Analysts Say.” From the story: “While Republicans have raised legitimate questions about the long-term feasibility of the reimbursement cuts, analysts say, to restore them in the short term would immediately add hundreds of dollars a year to out-of-pocket Medicare expenses for beneficiaries. That would violate Mr. Romney’s vow that neither current beneficiaries nor Americans within 10 years of eligibility would be affected by his proposal to shift Medicare to a voucherlike system in which recipients are given a lump sum to buy coverage from competing insurers. For those reasons, Henry J. Aaron, an economist and a longtime health policy analyst at the Brookings Institution and the Institute of Medicine, called Mr. Romney’s vow to repeal the savings ‘both puzzling and bogus at the same time.’”

*** On the trail: Obama holds a campaign event in Las Vegas at 12:40 pm ET, and his campaign releases a TV ad (which will air tomorrow in Ohio and Virginia) hitting Romney and Ryan on education… Romney holds a rally in Bettendorf, IA at 1:35 pm ET, and his campaign has a new TV ad once again invoking those $716 billion in Medicare cuts… Joe Biden stumps in Michigan… And Paul Ryan holds a rally in Raleigh, NC.

NBC's Domenico Montanaro reports that with Joe Biden's campaigning in Tampa, Fla., during the time of the Republican National Convention, it's clear the Obama campaign will not be dialing him back or limiting his campaigning.

Countdown to GOP convention: 5 days
Countdown to Dem convention: 12 days
Countdown to 1st presidential debate: 42 days
Countdown to VP debate: 50 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 55 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 61 days
Countdown to Election Day: 76 days

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