PRINCETON, NJ -- As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney prepare to discuss domestic issues in Wednesday's first presidential debate, Americans continue to give Romney at least a slight edge in terms of which presidential candidate is better able to handle the economy. However, Romney's advantage has decreased in comparison to earlier in the campaign.
Romney also fares better than Obama when Americans are asked to say whether the economy will be better or worse in four years if each is elected. Overall, 50% say the economy will be better if Romney is elected and 35% worse, for a net score of +15. Obama's net score on the same question is +8, with 48% predicting the economy would be better in four years if he is re-elected and 40% saying it will be worse.
These results are based on a Sept. 24-27 USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted in advance of the series of presidential debates beginning Oct. 3.
Romney's economic advantage is important, given that the economy is Americans' overriding concern this election year. However, that advantage alone is not enough to make Romney the leader in the presidential campaign. Obama enjoys a six-point advantage, 50% to 44%, in the latest Gallup Daily tracking of registered voters' presidential vote preferences.
Obama leads in part because Americans perceive the president as better able to handle most other issues than Romney is. One notable exception is the federal budget deficit, which is Obama's weakest issue.
Americans rate Obama as better able to handle international issues, such as foreign affairs and terrorism, by 10-point margins or better. Obama also comes out ahead over Romney for handling healthcare, energy, Medicare, and taxes. His biggest advantage on any issue is for handling social issues.
The candidates' relative positioning on various issues has been fairly stable this campaign, although Obama's current advantages on healthcare and taxes represent a slight shift in his direction since July.
Obama's Advantage Extends to Personal Characteristics
While issues are certainly an important part of each presidential campaign, they are not the only information voters take into account when deciding which candidate to support. Candidates' personal qualities are also important, and Obama was rated as better than Romney on all five measured in the poll. Obama's biggest advantage is for understanding the problems Americans face in their daily lives, with smaller advantages on sharing values, being a strong and decisive leader, being more likely to keep campaign promises, and managing the government effectively.
The pattern of Obama's being rated as better than Romney on personal characteristics has been evident throughout the campaign. As such, Obama has generally maintained higher personal favorable ratings than Romney during the campaign.
The presidential debates give the candidates a unique opportunity to demonstrate to Americans their fitness for office, in terms of how they would address the major issues facing the country and demonstrating presidential character.
To this point in the campaign, though, Americans' views of the two candidates have been fairly stable. Americans perceive Romney as better able to handle the economy and address the federal budget deficit, while they believe Obama is better able to handle most other issues, particularly those relating to foreign policy.
Americans also believe Obama has an advantage on most personal qualities relevant to a president, and they have consistently given him higher favorable ratings and said he is the more likable of the two candidates.
In an election in which the economy is the overriding issue, one might predict that the candidate voters view as best able to handle it would be the winner. But so far, Romney has at best been able to remain competitive with Obama this campaign, trailing the president for most of the campaign. Thus, Obama's advantages on most other issues and characteristics appear to be offsetting Romney's economic advantage.
The growing divide in how Americans view the economy is likely also neutralizing Romney's economic advantage to some degree. With the first debate focused on domestic issues, and the economy certain to be the dominant issue, Romney has a unique opportunity to bolster his economic credentials and gain momentum in the presidential campaign.
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Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 24-27, 2012, with a random sample of 1,446 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2011 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.