(NEW YORK) -- Rising enthusiasm and declining anxiety mark an energy boost among Mitt Romney’s supporters since he prevailed in the first presidential debate. But a persistent sense he’d favor the wealthy, combined with easing discontent with the nation’s direction, provide a retort for President Obama, raising the stakes for their second showdown this week.
Romney now numerically leads Obama in strong enthusiasm and trails him in anxiety among potential voters -- both firsts this season. At the same time, the number of registered voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll who say the country is headed seriously off on the wrong track has eased to its lowest in nearly three years, 56 percent -- a level incumbents can survive.
Following the best jobs report in 44 months, 52 percent say Obama deserves at least some credit for lower joblessness. And gains have been felt locally: Thirty-two percent now call it “very difficult” to find jobs in their area, down from 49 percent in July 2011.
These competing pulls make for a continued close race, with preferences narrowly divided and essentially unchanged. Likely voters split by 49-46 percent between Obama and Romney if the election were today, compared with 49-47 percent in the last ABC/Post poll, just before the first debate. The three-point difference between the candidates is within the survey’s margin of error.
Notably, Obama’s support among likely voters has ranged, tightly, between 47 percent and 49 percent in four ABC/Post polls since late August; Romney’s has been between 46 percent and 49 percent in that same time. Neither has broken free, nor exceeded the 50 percent line. If that holds, it becomes a get-out-the-vote election -- an area in which Obama currently has an advantage, but Romney’s proving more effective than was John McCain in 2008.
The poll finds likely voters in nine battleground states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin) dividing by 51-46 percent, Obama-Romney (not a significant difference). In the states rated as strong for Obama, it’s 56-39 percent; in those seen as strong for Romney, he leads by an almost identical 55-39 percent.
The public’s basic mood is hardly bright: well fewer than half of registered voters, 42 percent, say the country is headed in the right direction. But that’s up by 13 percentage points since late August, and compares to just 8 percent at this point in 2008.
Indeed the “right direction” number is no worse now than it was at about this time in 2004, when George W. Bush overcame majority discontent to win a second term. Similarly, Obama’s job approval rating -- 50 percent among all adults -- matches Bush’s then.
But the better buzz for Romney, especially since his debate performance, also is significant. Strong enthusiasm among his supporters has soared from 26 percent five months ago to 59 percent now, including an 11-point gain in just the past two weeks. And while Obama’s strong enthusiasm is eight points lower than at this point in 2008, strong enthusiasm for Romney -- potentially an indicator of voter turnout -- is a vast 30 points better than McCain’s four years ago.
Anxiety -- another indicator of comfort with the candidates -- tells a similar story in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates. The number of Romney supporters who feel anxious about how he’d perform as president has eased by 9 points since late August, to 53 percent. Anxiety among Obama’s supporters about how he’d handle a second term has followed a different path -- 53 percent six weeks ago, 58 percent now. Anxiety about Obama is now numerically greater than it is about Romney, again a first this season.
One further measure highlights these shifts as the campaigns enter the critical voter-turnout stage of the race: While 57 percent of registered voters expect Obama to win re-election, that’s declined from 63 percent before the first debate, including an 11-point drop among Republicans.
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