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Tighter Gender Gap, Sharper Partisanship – but Little Change in the Bottom Line

William Thomas Cain/Bill Pugliano/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- A tightening of the gender gap and a closer race among political independents mark trends among likely voters the past several days, but with no meaningful change to the bottom line in the evenly matched 2012 presidential race.

Nationally, likely voters divide by 49-48 percent between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the latest ABC News/Washington Post daily tracking poll. That’s exactly where it’s been in seven of the nine ABC/Post tracking poll releases since the start of last week, albeit with movement in some underlying measures -- toward Romney in the middle of last week, then easing back since.

See PDF with full results and charts here.

In the 11 states designated as battlegrounds by the ABC News Political Unit, moreover, it’s 49-48 percent, Obama-Romney, in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, when all 12 nights of this daily tracking poll are combined.

Such close overall results raise the possibility that one candidate could win the popular vote, another the electoral college, as in 2000. Were that to happen, likely voters by 56-37 percent say the winner of the popular vote should prevail. Sadly for them, the Constitution says otherwise.

The latest results are based on interviews through a four-day period including Monday evening, when Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast. Out of a national sample of 1,271 likely voters, 51 were interviewed Monday in the Northeast, the typical number in a single night. Eighty-six percent of those interviews were completed by 6:30 p.m., and all by 7:30 p.m. The storm, preceded by heavy winds and rain, made landfall at about 8 p.m. Data from the Monday night interviews in the Northeast are in accord with those from previous nights.

GROUPS – One notable shift is in the gender gap, which widened to its largest of the campaign last week but has narrowed since. Today women divide by 50-48 percent between Obama and Romney, compared with 56-41 percent at the largest gap last week; and preferences among men, similarly, have narrowed, to 46-51 percent now, from 40-57 percent last week.

Those changes have come in some particular groups. Gains for Romney last week among white men who lack a college degree have subsided slightly; he’s also lost some ground with men who are political moderates or independents. Obama meanwhile has slipped among women who are under age 50, or who hold college degrees; and his support from Republican women has gone from slight to slighter.

Whatever the vote preferences, underpinnings of the gender gap remain: As is customary, women are nine percentage points more likely than men to identify themselves as Democrats.

Preferences also have shifted a bit among independents, from a campaign peak of 58-38 percent in Romney’s favor last week to 52-45 percent now. Reflecting sharper partisanship, Obama’s doing better with independents who lean toward the Democratic Party, and, as noted above, with independent men. A competitive result for Romney among unmarried independents has faded; that’s a return to the norm, in that unmarried people generally are a more Democratic group.

VALUES – As if there weren’t enough results to illustrate the continued closeness of the race, a new question in this tracking poll asks likely voters which candidate better represents their personal values. The result: another nearly even split, 49-47 percent between Obama and Romney.

Group differences on the question are predictably vast; 90 percent of liberals pick Obama as better reflecting their values, and 80 percent of conservatives pick Romney. More moderates say Obama rather than Romney better represents their values, 54-40 percent; the numbers overall even out because conservatives outnumber liberals by 13 points.

While Obama does better than Romney on values among moderates, it’s numerically in Romney’s favor among independents, 48-43 percent (although not a statistically significant difference, given the sample size). Among other groups, 54 percent of whites prefer Romney on values, while 77 percent of nonwhites select Obama.

COLLEGE – On the electoral college question mentioned above, majorities across the political spectrum (albeit just slightly among Republicans) favor the popular vote winner -- 59 percent of independents, 56 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans. That’s a change from 2004, when, perhaps recalling the outcome of the 2000 election, a much larger majority of Democrats said the popular vote should prevail -- and most Republicans plumped for the electoral college.

The real answer, probably, is that it depends. In a similar question in 2000, just before the election most Republicans favored the popular vote, but after it, a majority said the electoral college should win the day – as it did, for the Republican candidate.

THE STORM – A more immediate question, if not yet answerable, is the impact on the election, if any, of Monday’s devastating hurricane. It’s a prognosticator’s paradise, with little probative experience. Credit or blame for the response likely will be based on how smoothly or shakily it proceeds; the public’s patience is bounded by the magnitude of the disruption and the strength of the recovery effort. The answer, then, may take time -- and with the election a week away, there's precious little of that available.

Partisan divisions in this survey, Democrats-Republicans-independents, are 33-28-35 percent among likely voters. Partisan divisions in the 2008 exit poll were 39-32-29 percent.  "Battleground states" as designated by the ABC News Political Unit are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

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