On the Day of the First Debate, Presidential Contest Remains Close Posted on October 3, 2012 | Polling Analysis

Today we are releasing our latest survey, a cooperative endeavor conducted with Democracy Corps for National Public Radio. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner conducted the calls September 26-30, 2012, and compiled the data. The survey polled 800 registered voters nationally, plus an oversample in 12 battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The sample contains 7 percentage points more Democrats than Republicans, 37 percent Democrat and 30 percent Republican. With full results available at, the following are key highlights:

  1. President Obama has a single-digit lead overall and in battleground states, but Governor Romney continues to lead among Independents. Among all voters Obama leads Romney 51 to 44 percent, and he leads 50 to 44 percent in battlegrounds states. Governor Romney leads among the Independent voters who have proved crucial in recent elections, 46 to 42 percent. Ranging from 4 to 8 points, Governor Romney has held a steady lead among Independents since he clinched the Republican nomination.

  2. The structure of the sample is probably a best-case scenario for Democrats. The +7 point advantage for Democrats over Republicans in the sample matches the 2008 electorate according to exit polls. That is the largest Democratic advantage in the last three Presidential elections. In 2000 when George W. Bush was first elected the Democratic advantage was +4 points. When Bush was reelected in 2004 the proportion of Democrats and Republicans in the electorate was identical. There is no "correct" margin for 2012 that can be determined at this point – it is a judgment call that pollsters make based on their read of the current data and past exit polls. But the impact of that judgment call is obvious: if this survey had the 2004 party balance in the sample rather than the 2008 party balance, Romney would be ahead, because Democrats and Republicans would cancel each other out, and Romney would lead because of his margin among Independents.

  3. Nearly one-quarter of the electorate says what happens during the Presidential debate could affect their vote, a percentage significantly higher than those who are still undecided. President Obama holds a slight edge with these voters (47 to 43 percent), but this is a subgroup well suited for Governor Romney. They are more likely to be Independent (45 percent) than Republican (28 percent), or Democrat (26 percent). Two-thirds feel the country is on the wrong track, a higher percentage than the national electorate. Majorities disapprove of President Obama’s job performance and handling of the economy. Moreover, by 47 to 38 percent, they believe Governor Romney will do a better job on the economy.

  4. Obama's job approval overall is 4 points higher than his disapproval, but battleground-state voters split evenly and Independents rate his job performance negatively. Overall 50 percent approve of the job Obama is doing and 46 percent disapprove. Battleground-state voters split 48 percent approve/49 percent disapprove. Independents disapprove by a double-digit margin, 53 to 39 percent. The president’s job approval among Independents has worsened since the last NPR survey in July when he held a 7-point deficit on his job performance.

  5. Obama's job approval specifically on the economy continues to be an excellent predictor of his vote share. Resurgent Republic published an article in Politico in September arguing that the best predictor of Obama's standing on the ballot was his job approval on the economy. In this survey Obama's job approval on the economy is 51 percent, exactly the same as his ballot number. Among Independents his job approval on the economy is 42 percent, exactly the same as his ballot standing among Independents. When looking at the campaign’s timeline, President Obama has not been able to improve his position among swing voters because his economic approval today is almost identical to where it stood in July (41 percent). Obama's political fortunes are inextricably tied to his economic job performance.

  6. When asked which candidate would be better on specific issues, Obama leads on Medicare, taxes, and the economy, while Romney leads on the budget deficit, but Independents prefer Romney on all but Medicare. Obama enjoys his largest lead over Romney on Medicare, 52 to 39 percent. (That lead, however, is far smaller than Democrats have typically enjoyed over Republicans in the past.) Obama leads Romney 48 to 43 percent on taxes and 48 to 44 percent on the economy, while Romney leads 49 to 41 percent on the budget deficit. But among Independents, Romney leads by 22 points on the budget deficit (54-32), by 16 points on taxes (50-34), and by 9 points on the economy (48-39); Obama leads on Medicare among Independents, but only by 4 points (44-40).

  7. The generic ballot for Congress remains very close overall, but Independents prefer Republicans by a wider margin than July. Overall voters prefer the Democratic candidate on the generic ballot for Congress by 48 to 45 percent. In July Independents gave the Republican candidate a 6-point advantage, and today Independents prefer the Republican candidate by 11 points, 46 to 35 percent. Historically, a close generic ballot has favored Republican candidates for Congress. If the generic ballot remains this close or closer, it will be very difficult for Democrats to take control of the House of Representatives.

  8. A majority of voters think the economy is either stalled or getting worse. Forty-six percent of voters think the economy is getting better, while 50 percent think it is either not getting any better or getting worse. In battleground states, 47 percent think the economy is getting better while 49 percent think it is not. Independents are particularly discouraged: only 37 percent think the economy is getting better, while 60 percent think it is stalled or getting worse.

  9. Strong arguments on either side of the economic debate show preference among all voters for the Democratic argument, but Independents prefer the Republican argument. Voters were asked to choose between two statements (the Republican argument was written by Resurgent Republic; the Democratic argument by Democracy Corps):

    The Republican candidate says: Barack Obama's economic policies have failed, and it's time to try something different. Unemployment remains at record levels, job creation is poor, federal spending is out of control, and much of the country is still in recession. Middle class incomes are down, and his health care law raised taxes on middle class families. His stimulus package failed to create the jobs he said it would, wasted billions of dollars on pork barrel projects at home, and spent American taxpayer dollars creating jobs overseas in countries like China.

    The Democratic candidate says: We're fighting to make sure our economy works for the middle class. Mitt Romney said he doesn't care about the 47 percent and that includes a lot of veterans, the elderly, and low-wage working people. He'd raise taxes on the middle class to give millionaires a yet bigger tax cut. But we tried that top-down approach. More tax cuts for the rich and outsourcing American jobs doesn't work. Instead, let's protect Medicare, invest in education and reward companies that create jobs here.

    Voters overall prefer the Democratic statement by 53 to 42 percent. But among critical Independents, the Republican argument wins by 52 to 44 percent, or 4 points more than the margin by which Independents currently prefer Romney over Obama.

    In May Resurgent Republic tested two arguments, one arguing that "President Obama's economic plan is working and we need to stay the course. . ." versus "President Obama's economic plan is not working and we need to try something different. . ." "Try something different" was preferred over "stay the course" by 55 to 40 percent among all voters, and 63 to 32 percent among Independents. Obama's campaign team apparently saw similar numbers, which is why they changed their argument to be essentially anti-Romney rather than pro-Obama.

    That reinforces our fundamental argument about this election: Obama cannot win a referendum on his record; his only hope for reelection is to so thoroughly trash Mitt Romney that Romney becomes an unacceptable alternative. If Romney can slip that punch, Obama is in trouble.

  10. Opposing arguments about America's standing in the world yield a preference for the Democratic argument overall, and an even split among Independents. Voters were asked to choose between two statements (the Republican argument was written by Resurgent Republic; the Democratic argument by Democracy Corps):

    The Republican candidate says: America's standing in the world today is worse than when Barack Obama took office. His first foreign policy act was to travel the world apologizing for past American actions, rather than promoting American values. He has refused to side with democratic movements in Iran and Syria. Perception of American weakness has emboldened our enemies and led to attacks on American embassies. Obama has insulted one of our closest allies by refusing to meet with the Prime Minister of Israel. Obama's doctrine of "leading from behind" is not leading at all.

    The Democratic candidate says: Our country is safer because we took out dozens of top Al-Qaeda terrorists and Osama bin Laden - and our enemies know we're dead serious. We've sustained our military and critical help for our veterans. But we also worked with our allies to bring change in Libya and Egypt without troops and got our troops out of Iraq and soon in Afghanistan. But Mitt Romney opposed ending the Iraq war and a deadline in Afghanistan - and plans a massive increase in military spending. I believe it's time to rebuild our country.

    Voters prefer the Democratic argument overall by 50 to 42 percent, while Independents split evenly at 44 percent for each argument. While any candidate for President must demonstrate familiarity and ease with foreign policy, Republicans will never paint the man who ordered the mission that took out the world's most wanted terrorist as weak. Romney's best argument against Obama remains the economy rather than foreign policy.


The Presidential contest remains very close going into the first debate. Obama retains a small lead, but the size of that lead depends on assumptions about the Democratic advantage over Republicans in the ultimate 2012 electorate. Depending on the course of the campaign over the remaining five weeks, either candidate could reasonably win.


This survey of 800 registered voters nationally, plus an oversample to reach a total of 426 battleground-state voters, was conducted jointly by Resurgent Republic and Democracy Corps September 26-30, 2012. Calls were conducted and data produced by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Respondents were selected randomly from a random-digit-dialing sample including both cellular and landline telephone numbers, and were contacted by live interviewers. All respondents confirmed that they are registered to vote in the county in which they live. Quotas were set for state, age, and race based on state registration and previous turnout. By party the sample is 37 percent Democrat, 32 percent Independent, and 30 percent Republican.

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