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First Thoughts: Reaching 50%

Obama at or near 50% in our new polls and other surveys… Did Obama and Romney succeed at their conventions?... NBC/WSJ poll: Economic optimism on the rise… Comparing 2012 to 2004… Examining the up-for-grabs voters… While Obama hits 50%, the “47%” story continues for Romney, with more conservatives growing restless and with the pro-Obama Super PAC airing a new TV ad seizing on the remarks… And Romney borrows $20 million to get him through the end of the primary-funds season.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd shares details from the latest NBC News/ WSJ poll, which is the first national one after the conventions.

*** Reaching 50%: Back in May, we noticed in our national and state polls that President Obama was at or near 48% in these surveys, which represented a sort of tipping point for an incumbent president. You're very close to that all-important 50%, but still not there. Well, our latest round of national and state polls conducted after the conventions now shows Obama at or near 50%. For instance, our brand-new national NBC/WSJ poll finds him leading Romney 50%-45% among likely voters and his approval rating sitting right at 50% among registered voters (the first time he's reached that point since March). In addition, last week's NBC/WSJ/Marist polls of Florida (49%-44%), Ohio (50%-43%), and Virginia (49%-44%) had him at or near that 50% threshold. There are exceptions, however: A national AP/GfK poll has Obama at 47% among likely voters and Romney at 46%, and USA Today/Gallup has Obama at 48% in the swing states versus Romney at 46%. But there also are other polls showing Obama at or above 50% -- new NYT/CBS/Quinnipiac surveys have him at 51% in Wisconsin, 50% in Virginia, but 48% in Colorado. So Obama's prospects are looking stronger than a month ago. The question is: Can he hold on to this 50% support? If the election were held today, it would probably look a lot like Obama’s job rating in our new poll -- 50% to 48%.

*** Did Obama and Romney succeed at their conventions? Here’s another way to read our poll: Did Obama and Romney succeed at their conventions in shoring up their weaknesses? Remember, this is our first national poll after the conventions and after the natural bounce time. For Obama, his convention had the dual purpose of trying to make the nation feel better about the last four years, as well as make the case that it would be better off if he were re-elected. Well, our NBC/WSJ poll shows that the percentage thinking the country is better off since Obama became president jumped seven points from August, and it also shows him leading Romney by 11 points on who is better prepared to lead the country over the next four years, 47%-36%. Another goal of the Democratic convention was to fire up the Democratic base, and the evidence there is more mixed. Per our poll, 71% of Democrats express high interest in the upcoming election, which is up three points from August. But that percentage trails Republicans, who are at 80%. What’s more, Romney leads Obama among the highest-interest voters, 49%-46%. As for Romney’s his convention’s goal was to attempt to make him more likeable and close the empathy gap. On this score: mission NOT accomplished. Romney’s fav/unfav rating is pretty much unchanged at 38%-43%, and Obama leads him by nearly 20 points (53%-34%) on who best looks out for the middle class.

*** Economic optimism on the rise: Fueling Obama's horserace numbers in our NBC/WSJ poll is increased optimism about the economy and nation's direction. Per the poll, 39% of registered voters say the country is on the right track, versus 55% who say it’s on the wrong track. That right-track number is a seven-point increase from August, and it’s the highest percentage on this question since Sept. ’09. What’s more, 42% of voters believe the economy will improve in the next 12 months, which is a six-point jump from August and 15-point rise from July. And now get this: Obama is tied with Romney (43% to 43%) on which candidate would be better on the economy. (The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent points out that this is the sixth recent national poll to show Obama and Romney tied on the economy.) In July, Romney held a six-point edge on this question. As NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) says, “Simply put, it Romney doesn’t win on dealing with the economy, he doesn’t win.” The jump in economic optimism isn’t just being fueled by more Democrats, but also by high single-digit and double-digits shift among self-described indies.

Tony Dejak / AP

President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event at Schiller Park Monday, Sept. 17, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.

*** Comparing 2012 to 2004: Still, NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) cautions that the race promises to be close. Why? Because the numbers bear a striking resemblance to those from 2004, when George W. Bush narrowly beat John Kerry. Consider: In the Sept. 2004 NBC/WSJ poll, 39% believed the country was on the right track (vs. 39% now); 43% thought the economy would improve in the next year (vs. 42% now); Bush's fav/unfav was 49%-45% (vs. Obama's 48%-42%); Kerry's fav/unfav was 42%-42% (vs. Romney's 38%-43%); and Bush led Kerry by three points among likely voters (vs. Obama's five-point edge now). "If you look at '04 as a model, '04 was really close," McInturff says. "And that's how we should continue to think about the campaign." But do note that in 2004, Kerry won October, besting Bush in the debates to make the race competitive. Can Romney do the same? He lost July and August, and he’s losing September. The next month is his last chance.

*** Who's still up for grabs? Indeed, our poll also shows that the pool of up-for-grabs voters -- those who are undecided or leaning only to either Obama or Romney -- is getting smaller. From April through July, these folks represented 18% of the respondents; in August, they were 16%; and now they are just 12%. So who is this 12%? According to the poll, they are pessimistic about the direction of the country (22% think it's on the right track). They are down on Obama (just 31% approve of his job). But they also don't like Romney (his fav/unfav with them is 21%-38% vs. Obama's 29%-46%).

*** Obama’s big yellow flag: foreign policy. Finally, ours is the first major national poll to test the president’s job rating on foreign policy since the tragedy in Libya and the protests all over the Middle East. And, so far, the crisis appears to have taken a toll on the president. His approval rating on foreign policy dropped to 49%-46% (it was 54%-40% last month). While some of the increase in “disapproval” came from Republicans, there was also a precipitous drop in the president’s rating from independents.  

*** The “47%” story continues: While 50% remains the number for Obama, Mitt Romney continues to be dogged by 47% -- that is, his remarks at that secretly taped fundraiser back in May. The campaign has tried to fight back, resurrecting a 14-year-old comment from Obama on “redistribution.” “The president’s view is one of a larger government; I disagree,” Mr. Romney said on FOX yesterday, per the New York Times. “I think a society based on a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money, that’s the wrong course for America.” But make no mistake: This new line of attack is all about reassuring the base. Just look where this argument is being made -- on FOX and Drudge. In fact, perhaps the bigger development yesterday were down-ballot Republicans (like Scott Brown and Linda McMahon) distancing themselves from Romney’s “47%” remarks. "That's not the way I view the world," Brown said in a statement yesterday. "As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in."

*** Conservatives growing restless: And while some conservatives have come to Romney’s defense, others are beginning to unload on him. The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack: “The reason such remarks keep slipping out of Mitt Romney's mouth is not that Romney wants to wage a class war against lower-income Americans. The likely problem is that Mitt Romney is not a conservative--or at least wasn't a conservative until late in life--but he is running for president as the nominee of the conservative party on a conservative platform. So he has trouble defending conservative ideas.” Here’s Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal: “I think there is a broad and growing feeling now, among Republicans, that this thing is slipping out of Romney’s hands.” And here’s the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page: “Surely a man as smart as the former CEO of Bain Capital can give a better speech on taxes and dependency than he delivered at that fundraiser. If he can't, he'll lose, and he'll deserve to.” What has to concern Romney and the GOP is that the conservatives who were never really for Romney in the first place are beginning to sound or read as if they are simply exhausted from defending him.

*** Dem Super PAC seizes on Romney’s “47%” comment: Meanwhile, the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA Action is out with the first TV ad seizing on Romney’s “47%” remarks. “Behind these doors Mitt Romney calls half the American people ‘dependent upon government, who believe they are victims,’” the ad goes. “Victims?  Behind these doors middle-class families struggle. And Romney will make things even tougher. Raising taxes by up to $2,000 to give multi-millionaires a $250,000 tax break.” The ad will air in CO, FL, IA, OH, VA, and WI.

*** Romney borrows $20 million: Finally, the news -- first reported by National Review Online -- that Romney had to borrow $20 million to get him through the period where he couldn’t tap into his general-election funds shouldn’t be THAT big of a deal. He has plenty of money now that we’re in the general-election phase (which legally began after his convention acceptance speech). But it does become somewhat of a problem when you add it to all of Romney’s other problems. The 47% remarks. The conservatives who are growing restless. The polls showing Obama at or near 50%.

*** On the trail: Romney raises money in Atlanta and then heads to Miami, FL, where he participates in Univision’s "Meet the Candidates" forum and then holds a "Juntos Con Romney" rally at 8:55 pm ET… Paul Ryan stumps in Virginia… And First Lady Michelle Obama campaigns in North Carolina.

Countdown to 1st presidential debate: 14 days
Countdown to VP debate: 22 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 27 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 33 days
Countdown to Election Day: 48 days

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