WASHINGTON -- Voters in the nation's key battlegrounds have become asenthusiastic and engaged in the 2012 presidential election as they werein the historic contest four years ago, and they finally have made uptheir minds about President Obama and Mitt Romney.
It's a tie: 48%-48%.
Theeven split among likely voters in the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of SwingStates reflects gains in the campaign's final weeks by Obama, who hasclosed a 4-percentage-point deficit from early October in the wake of adisappointing first presidential debate. Most of the interviews werecompleted before Hurricane Sandy hit, and the president's disasterresponse may have bolstered his standing a bit since then.
The11th and final Swing States Poll, a USA TODAY series that began a yearago, finds voters increasingly excited about the election and settled intheir support. They say they have a clear idea what each candidatewould do if elected - though that has caused some alarm. Most expressconcern that a President Romney would return to failed GOP policies andthat a re-elected Obama would rely too much on Big Government.
AsElection Day approaches, Obama leads 50%-46% among registered voters.That's the first time since Romney clinched the Republican nominationlast spring that either candidate has reached the 50% threshold and thebiggest margin during that time.
The poll was taken in the dozenbattlegrounds most likely to determine the outcome in the ElectoralCollege: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, NewMexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. In asign of their importance, one or both of the presidential candidatesheld events during the campaign's final days in nine of those 12 states -and neither stumped anywhere else.
In polls of individual states,aggregated by RealClearPolitics.com, Obama has an edge in ninebattlegrounds, including a narrow 2.8-point lead in crucial Ohio. Romneyleads in two, Florida and North Carolina, and Virginia is essentiallyeven. Combined national polls put Obama at 47.5%, Romney at 47.3%.
Senior strategists in both campaigns saw encouraging signs in the USA TODAY findings.
JimMessina, Obama's campaign manager, said the president has gainedmomentum and now leads narrowly in statewide polls in most battlegroundsbecause a stark economic choice has "crystallized" for voters,especially in the three debates. "People understand that this presidentis on their side," he said in an interview. "People know he's going tofight for them every single day."
Neil Newhouse, Romney'spollster, notes the closeness of the contest. "The bottom line is, we'relooking at this as a dead heat, a jump-ball kind of race that's tiedright now, and we've got an intensity advantage. That kind of enthusiasmadvantage translates into a turnout advantage on Election Day," he saidin an interview. "The election now comes down to turnout, to intensity,to ground game."
Obama has improved his standing in the past fewweeks by regaining support among women in the swing states. The gendergap - that is, the disparity between the way men and women vote - standsat historically high levels after narrowing in the early October. Obamanow leads among women by 16 points; Romney leads among men by 10.
Romneyleads among white men by a yawning 27 points; the two candidates dividewhite women evenly. The former Massachusetts governor leads amongindependent voters by a single point.
'Sending a message'
AllisonFitzwater, 42, of Viroqua, Wis., voted for Obama four years ago and,despite some disappointments, was determined to support him again fromthe opening days of the campaign. "I like the changes I've seen so farand I want them to continue," the high-school science teacher, who wasamong those polled, said in a follow-up interview.
ScottCunningham, 28, a chemist from Sparks, Nev., decided in just the pastweek or two to cast his vote for Romney and against the president.
"Ithas everything to do with sending a message that, like any other job,if you get hired to do a four-year job or a six-month contract, ifyou're not doing a good job at the end of that period, you're goingaway," he said. "In the beginning (Obama's) message was, 'Give me ashot, coach; put me in; I can play.' Well, you got your chance. Youcan't say, 'I need a little more time.'"
Obama has lost some luster over the past four years - perhaps no surprise after a tenure launched during an economic crisis.
Hewon all 12 of the swing states in 2008, carrying 53.9% of theircombined vote over Republican John McCain. This time, given the dividebetween solidly Republican and solidly Democratic states elsewhere, heneeds to claim close to half of their 151 electoral votes to amass the270-vote total that will give him four more years in the White House.
Registeredvoters are less likely to identify themselves as Democrats now thanthey were four years ago. In the Swing States survey, 37% callthemselves Democrats, down 4 points from 2008; 29% call themselvesRepublicans, up 3 points. The percentage of independents is 34% now, 32%then.
At the end of the 2008 campaign, 63% of registered votersin the battlegrounds had a favorable impression of Obama; now 55% do.The percentage who see him as a strong leader has declined 11 points, to53%. Those who say he understands the problems Americans face in theirdaily lives has dropped 14 points, to 60%.
Romneycontinues to hold an advantage on the economy, which Americans identifyas the most important issue this year by far. Voters prefer him overObama in handling the economy by 3 points and in handling the federalbudget deficit by 10 points. The former Massachusetts governor is seenas a stronger leader and the candidate who could do a better jobmanaging the federal government.
"I just feel like the economywill recover a bit faster if he were to become president," says RaymondPerez, 33, a registered nurse from Miami who plans to vote for theRepublican.
In what is one of this year's enduring puzzles,however, Romney has struggled to pull decisively ahead with votersdespite their preference for him on their most important issue - perhapsbecause he hasn't convinced many of them that he understands theirlives and will protect their interests.
"He just doesn't reallyhave a clue about how others live," Fitzwater says, mentioning thesecretly recorded video in which Romney spoke dismissively of the 47% ofAmericans who don't pay federal income taxes. "He seems to think thatpeople with money need to keep their money, while I see people withmoney having a responsibility to help those who aren't as well off asthey are."
Obama is favored in handling everything except theeconomy and the deficit - on foreign affairs, national security, energy,health care and taxes. And the president continues to be viewed as moreempathetic than Romney. Six in 10 say Obama "understands the problemsAmericans face in their daily lives." Just 45% say that of Romney.
How are you feeling?
A year ago, voters in the battlegrounds weren't particularly excited about this presidential race.
Inthe first Swing States Poll, in October 2011, fewer than half said theywere enthusiastic about the election. That number rose only to 51% inlate January, during the heat of the battle for the Republicannomination. That's 10 points lower than at that point in 2008, whenthere were nomination fights in both parties.
The percentage ofvoters who said they had given "quite a lot" of thought to the electionwas significantly lower at the beginning of the year as well.
Now,though, Americans are as engaged in the election as they were in thegroundbreaking contest four years ago, which featured the firstAfrican-American candidate for president on the Democratic ticket andSarah Palin for vice president on the GOP side. Eighty-six percent ofregistered voters say they have given quite a lot of thought to theelection, just about the same percentage who said that at the end of thecampaigns in 2008 and 2004. It's considerably higher than the numberwho felt that way in 2000 and 1996.
Increased voter interest generally could signal another high-turnout election.
Theincrease in enthusiasm is particularly pronounced among women,especially middle-aged and senior women. The proportion of women who saythey are extremely enthusiastic has more than doubled in the past year;it's nearly tripled among those 50 and older.
Overall,Republicans continue to have an enthusiasm advantage, though it hasnarrowed in the past year. In October 2011, a third of Republican voterswere extremely enthusiastic about the presidential election, more thandouble the number of Democrats who felt that way. Now, 51% ofRepublicans and 44% of Democrats say they're excited about it.
AnnFreund, 47, a homemaker from Hudson, Ohio, who supports Obama,acknowledges his campaign is less electrifying this time than it wasfour years ago.
"As a country, we've all been through some roughtimes, so it's hard to generate that same enthusiasm," she says. "It'slike when you get married, and four years later, the stars aren't inyour eyes anymore. You lost your job; you had a baby; you had to moveacross the country or whatever. You have those bumps in the road withyour life together. And with President Obama, right off the bat we hadtons of (trouble)."
When Romney clinched the Republican nominationlast spring, there were a lot of undecided voters for the twocandidates to battle for: Nearly a third said they hadn't made up theirminds. Now, fewer than one in 10 say it's possible they'll change theirminds. In fact, 22% already have cast ballots in early or absenteevoting; they broke narrowly for Romney.
What has influenced voters' decisions?
Morethan six in 10 cite the debates, and half say editorials or commentarymattered. More than a third were affected by the political conventions.But to the skepticism of experts, voters downplayed the power of allthose campaign ads. Fewer than one in four say the TV spots affectedtheir vote.
"Seeing the debates kind of solidified my decision,"says Lori Cook, 49, a human-resources manager from Roanoke, Va., who wasamong those surveyed. "After seeing the debates, I felt morecomfortable with my decision." She is backing Romney, though she soundsless than thrilled by her options. "Well, there's only the two to choosefrom," she notes.
The Swing States Poll of 1,183 registeredvoters, including 1,077 likely voters, was taken Oct. 27-31 by landlineand cellphone. The national survey of 1,447 registered voters was takenNov. 1-2 for comparison purposes. Each has an error margin of +/-4points. The head-to-head matchup is based on interviews with 2,192registered voters and 1,984 likely voters in the Swing States Poll andthe Gallup daily poll taken in those 12 states from Oct. 22-28. It has amargin of error of +/-3 points.
Swing states residents describebeing deluged by campaign ads on TV and courted by campaign workers onthe phone and at the front door. Freund has gotten robo-calls from MittRomney and from Ann Romney. Her 12-year-old son, Alex, managed to shakehands with former president Bill Clinton at a rally Thursday.
Fiftypercent of voters in the battlegrounds say the Romney campaign hascontacted them by e-mail, phone, mail or in person; 49% say they'veheard from the Obama campaign. (In contrast, just a third of Americansnationwide say they've had personal contact from each of the campaigns.)
The impact of all that attention isn't always positive.
CarolMack, 63, is principal of the Matthew Thorton Elementary School inLondonderry, N.H., where the students made voting booths fromrefrigerator boxes and held a mock election Friday.
"I noticedthat the children were quoting sound bites from the commercials," Macksaid with dismay. "One child says to me, 'You should vote for Romney;Obama is destroying the country!'"
Their ballots will be counted Monday.
A 'clear idea' - and some alarm
Abouttwo-thirds of registered voters say they have a clear idea of what eachcandidate would do in office over the next four years. That knowledgehasn't always eased their minds.
A 53% majority - including about one in four of his supporters - saythey are concerned that Romney in office would adopt policies "that aretoo similar to what former president George W. Bush pursued."
And 64% of those surveyed - including almost four in 10 of hissupporters - say they are concerned that a re-elected Obama would relytoo much on the federal government to solve the country's problems.
Infollow-up interviews, voters of all stripes express concerns about thedirection of the country and the ability of Washington to fix thecountry's woes.
Judy Sessoms, 67, an Obama supporter from BladenCounty, N.C., hopes there will be less of the sharp partisanship thathas divided Washington. "I hope it'll change with the election," shesays, but she worries it won't. "Some people seem to be very entrenchedin their desire to just continue to say 'no'" to the other side, shesays.
"This is just an incredibly crucial election," says JeffreyCrum, 47, of State College, Pa. "I feel like there's more at stake thistime than usual," agrees Cook, who supports Romney in part because hewas able to work across party lines as governor of Democratic-dominatedMassachusetts. "There's a lot of gridlock in Congress, and it's too badthat there can't be more partisan efforts made on a lot of things."
Whenvoters in the swing states were asked in an open-ended question todescribe the long campaign in a word or two, they divided about evenlybetween positive words ("intense," "good") and negative ones ("nasty,""lies").
The most frequent response was "interesting," and the second was "important."