The unofficial start of the general election campaign a week ago triggered a deluge of public polling on the Obama-Romney matchup as quickly as research firms could crunch the data. Ten major outlets have now reported numbers. So what do we know so far?
For starters, you may not be surprised to learn that it's expected to be a close race. The top line numbers -- that is, the head-to-head matchup between the Democratic incumbent and his likely GOP challenger -- range from a 9-point lead for Obama (CNN/Opinion Research Corporation) to a 5-point advantage for Romney (Gallup).
The latest poll of the bunch, from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, puts Obama ahead 49% to 43%. A composite of recent polls from Real Clear Politics gives Obama, on average, a nearly 3-point lead.
Those early top-line numbers are getting most of the attention, but at this stage the campaigns are more interested in what the deeper data show. And while each survey has a different overall result, there are areas of consensus among them that point to the candidates' main strengths and weaknesses, and the nature of the November electorate.
1. Republicans are rallying ... slowly: Given how many Republican candidates laid claim to the frontrunner mantle at various points of the primary battle, it is noteworthy that the party's base seems to be quickly accepting the fact that Romney is the one they must support if they are to defeat President Obama.
A Pew Research Center poll showed that 88% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters say they will support Romney this fall. Despite conventional wisdom that suggested Romney was weakest among the more conservative elements of the party, Pew found that they were more likely to be certain of their support for him now, by a margin of 82% compared to only 66% of moderate and liberal Republicans who were certain.
A CBS/New York Times poll found that 54% of Republican primary voters now say they want Romney to lead them into the fall campaign -- not an overwhelming majority, but a significant jump from a March poll that found only 30% felt that way then.
Romney's favorable rating, still historically low for a major party nominee at this time, is nonetheless improving now that Republicans' internal sniping is subsiding. Among all voters, CNN's poll showed his personal favorable rating jumped from 37% in March to 44% in April. A Washington Post/ABC News poll saw less of a bounce so far, though, with his favorable rating still at just 35%.
What's really motivating Republicans is their hostility to Obama. Among registered general election voters who said they would support Romney, 63% said their vote was one against Obama while 35% said it was a vote for Romney.
2. It's the economy, stupid: Never mind the dust-up over Hilary Rosen’s comments, Ted Nugent’s rant, or anything involving dogs. The overwhelming concern of voters at this point is a serious one: the state of the economy.
In a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 53% of voters said jobs and the economy was the most important issue when thinking about their choice in the election. They showed the race as 47% to 43% for Obama overall. But 45% of voters said Romney was stronger on jobs and the economy, compared to 43% who said Obama was. It was the only issue where Romney led.
That may explain why the president does not have a more significant lead given how well he scores against Romney on some key questions.
The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found voters overwhelmingly prefer the president when asked which of the two candidates is likable, cares about average people, or is looking out for the middle class. The only questions where Romney led: has good ideas for how to improve the economy, and could change business as usual in Washington.
The same poll found that only 36% of voters think Obama’s policies have improved the economy, while 33% say they have hurt, and 30% say they have made not much of a difference. But voters in the survey seemed to respond more positively to a key element of the president's recent stump speech, focusing on economic fairness, suggesting he could benefit in an election that is seen as a choice rather than a referendum.
In the Pew survey, Obama had a significant lead among voters who say their top priorities include health care, education, the environment, and birth control. Romney led among voters whose priorities included the budget deficit and Iran. Overall, the top issues listed by poll respondents included the economy, jobs, health care, the budget deficit, and education.
3. Women matter: There's a reason the first skirmish of the general election battle was all about women. There is a significant gender gap at the moment, with female voters backing the president by a wide margin, and men, to a lesser degree, supporting Romney.
In the Pew survey, Obama wins among women 53% to 40%, while Romney leads among men 50% to 44%. In the CBS/New York Times poll, it was 49% to 43% for Romney among men, but the exact opposite among women. Obama’s job approval rating, 48% overall, was 52% among women, versus 43% among men.
Sixty percent of women voters said they were very or somewhat confident that Obama would make the right decisions on women’s health issues, while just 43% said that of Romney. But only 5% of voters overall said women’s health issues were the most important factor in their vote.
Also of note, what Quinnipiac University’s Peter Brown called the racial gap. Obama leads among black voters 94% to 3% and among Hispanics 64% to 24% in the Quinnipiac survey, while Romney leads 52% to 36% among white voters. High minority turnout is key for Obama if he is to be reelected; Ron Brownstein of the National Journal pointed out that in 2008 he was the first winning candidate to lose the white vote by a double-digit margin.
4. The enthusiasm gap: There is a reason that Obama's Chicago-based campaign team has been quick to email supporters with bad polling results. They're worried their core supporters aren't worried enough about the tough battle ahead.
The polling offers mixed signals on this count. In the Quinnipiac survey, 42% of Republicans said they were more enthusiastic about voting this time than usual, 14 percentage points higher than the number of Democrats who say that. Overall, about a third of voters said they were more enthusiastic about voting, a quarter said less, and 43% said about the same.
In Gallup's survey, 80% of Romney voters said they would definitely vote, compared with 76% of Obama voters -- meaning no side had a statistical advantage when the margin of error is factored in.
What is concerning to the Obama camp is not just the possibility that Democrats won't be engaged to the degree the campaign would hope. The president is suffering among groups of voters who supported him in 2008 but have continued to suffer the most in the down economy, specifically people earning less than $50,000 a year and independents. White independent voters split between McCain and Obama in 2008, but now back Romney by 16 points.
5. The shrinking swing vote: The electorate may be as polarized as ever, and that means, it would seem, fewer "persuadable" voters for the campaigns to target at this point.
Gallup's initial tracking poll found that an equal number of Republicans and Democrats -- 90% -- support their nominee. Independents broke 45% for Romney to 39% for Obama. He also won 46% to 39% among independents in the Quinnipiac poll. But CNN had independents favoring Obama 48% to 43%.
Tracking just who is an undecided or persuadable voter is one of pollsters’ biggest challenges, and the varied results bear that out. The Pew poll estimated that 23% of the voters were swing voters, meaning they only lean toward one candidate or another, favor one but say they could change their mind, or are truly undecided.
That's down from 33% who said that in June 2008, but roughly even with the size of the swing vote in 2004, when incumbent George W. Bush sought reelection. The smaller the swing vote, the more the election could come down to turning out the party bases, or which campaign has a superior ground game.
Gallup experts have said that the current phase of a presidential election tends to be a critical one, in which voters' impressions of the candidates are forming and can quickly harden.
Unlike in the primary phase of the campaign, when the polling could swing dramatically in only a matter of days, general election polling tends to be largely consistent.
Each pollster has different methodology and weighting techniques to produce its top-line numbers. When Gallup produced a head-to-head number that was worse for Obama than other surveys, for instance, Obama's campaign attributed it to the fact that minority voters made up a smaller portion of its sample than other polls.
But expect that the numbers won't fluctuate much, barring any major external events that could quickly change public opinion. Otherwise, fluctuations could be limited simply to the margins of error.