By JEFF ZELENY and MEGAN THEE-BRENAN
President Obama has taken away Mitt Romney’s longstanding advantage as the candidate voters say is most likely to restore the economy and create jobs, according to the latest poll by The New York Times and CBS News, which found a modest sense of optimism among Americans that White House policies are working.
But while the climate for Mr. Obama has improved since midsummer, and Mr. Romney has failed to shift sentiment decisively in his favor, the poll found that the presidential race is narrowly divided. The outcome could still turn on unexpected events and how the candidates are perceived after their three debates next month.
With their conventions behind them and the general election campaign fully engaged, the Democratic Party is viewed more favorably than the Republican Party. The poll also found that more likely voters give an edge to Mr. Obama on foreign policy, Medicare and addressing the challenges of the middle class. The only major issue on which Mr. Romney held an advantage was handling the federal budget deficit.
The nationwide poll was conducted during a turbulent week in the campaign, with a new torrent of television ads from Mr. Romney, a disappointing jobs report for Mr. Obama and both candidates reacting to deadly violence in Egypt, Libya and across the Arab world.
Among those considered most likely to vote, the president was the choice of 49 percent to 46 percent for Mr. Romney, including those who said they were leaning in one direction or another. It is within the survey’s margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points for each candidate.
The president holds a 10-point advantage on who would do a better job handling foreign policy, with 4 in 10 voters very confident of Mr. Obama’s ability to handle an international crisis, compared with about one-quarter who say the same about Mr. Romney. The survey was largely conducted before foreign affairs took on heightened importance when the United States ambassador to Libya and three other Americans there were killed on Tuesday.
While the poll reflects a prevailing sentiment among Mr. Romney’s advisers that he must find a way to change the dynamics of the race, the findings also highlight a lingering discontent running through the electorate. A slim majority of likely voters still disapprove of how Mr. Obama has handled the economy and 7 in 10 rank the economy as fairly bad or very bad.
But with only two weeks before the first wave of early voting begins in some states, the presidential race has taken on a new sense of urgency, the poll found, with enthusiasm increasing among voters. A plea for patience, which Mr. Obama delivered at the Democratic convention, appears to be resonating with some voters.
“I believe the country is going in the right direction, little by little,” Anita Young, 42, an independent voter from Ardmore, Pa., said in a follow-up interview. “Are things moving fast enough? No, of course not, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
The president’s job approval rating of 51 percent among all Americans marks the first time he has surpassed a majority in the poll by The Times and CBS News since immediately after Osama bin Laden was killed, in May 2011. The number of adults who say the country is on the right track has increased to 40 percent, though 54 percent say it is on the wrong track.
The coalition that helped sweep Mr. Obama into office four years ago is at least partly intact. He holds a 12-point advantage among women, while Mr. Romney holds the upper hand among men by 8 percentage points. But independent voters, who supported Mr. Obama by eight percentage points in 2008, are now breaking for Mr. Romney by six percentage points.
The poll found that a majority of voters embrace the president’s vision of a country that emphasizes community and shared responsibility over self-reliance and individual responsibility, a distinction at the core of the debate between the Republican and Democratic tickets about the proper role of government.
But with the nation’s unemployment rate still above 8 percent, a recent spike in gas prices and another impending budget showdown in Washington, a cloud of pessimism still looms, which creates an opening for Mr. Romney among frustrated voters who are looking for a change.
Looking forward, 45 percent of likely voters say they believe the next generation of Americans will be worse off and 31 percent say it will be better. On this question, there is a sharp divide among race, with black men and women far more hopeful about the future than white men and women.
When asked who understands their needs and problems, Mr. Obama has a 20-point advantage over Mr. Romney among women, compared to an 8-point advantage among men. Since a Times/CBS News poll in early March, Mr. Romney has made significant gains with voters in finding a personal connection and showing empathy; the latest survey finds 46 percent of likely voters say he understands their challenges and 48 percent say he does not.
“We’re getting further behind,” said Gregory Sowin, 55, an independent voter from Kewaskum, Wis., who owns a bar and a construction business and is frustrated by health care and other policies of the administration. In a follow-up interview, he said, “Romney can’t do any worse than Obama has done, and I’m betting my future that he can do better.”
This is the first poll by The Times and CBS News of the election cycle to take a measure of those considered most likely to vote. The nationwide telephone survey was conducted from Sept. 8 through 12 among 1,170 registered voters, including those who were weighted by their responses to questions about voting history, attention to the campaign and likelihood of voting.
Among the wider spectrum of registered voters in this poll after the Democratic National Convention last week, Mr. Obama has a stronger command of the race. The poll found that 51 percent of those voters supported Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., while 43 percent supported Mr. Romney and Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.
But among the probable electorate, which models likely voters and typically reflects the tendency of Republicans to turn out more consistently at the polls, the candidates are running far closer. When these likely voters were asked about the trajectory of the United States over the last four years, 35 percent said the country was better off, 41 percent said the country was worse off and 23 percent said it was about the same.
The president’s base of supporters is more enthusiastic and loyal, with 62 percent saying they will vote for him because they like him and 30 percent because they dislike Mr. Romney. But among Mr. Romney’s supporters, 50 percent say they like him and 39 percent say they are supporting him because they do not like the direction Mr. Obama is taking the country.
With less than eight weeks remaining until the election on Nov. 6, just 5 percent of voters have not yet decided which candidate to support, while about 1 in 10 voters who already support a candidate say they could still change their minds.
Allison Kopicki, Marina Stefan and Dalia Sussman contributed reporting.
PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 14, 2012