A rising number of Americans see improvement in the economy, but a persistent wariness about their own financial circumstances is allowing Mitt Romney to persuade voters that he could improve their economic prospects more than President Obama, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Even as the nation rebounds from the recession, its lingering effects are reflected in the adversities facing families. Nearly two-thirds of people are concerned about paying for their housing, the poll found, and one in five people with mortgages say they are underwater.
Four in 10 parents say they have had to alter expectations for the type of college they can afford for their children. And more than one-third of respondents said high gas prices had created serious financial hardships.
The general election match between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney is opening with evidence that economic conditions are providing ammunition for both candidates. For Mr. Obama, there is a gradually growing perception that the general outlook is turning brighter, and for Mr. Romney, there are those individuals who still do not feel substantial improvement in their own lives.
The poll found that the two men are locked in a tight race, with each gathering 46 percent of the support. Nearly an equal number of voters say they are as confident in Mr. Romney’s ability to make the right decisions on the economy and to be commander in chief as express confidence in Mr. Obama.
As many voters thought they would do better under Mr. Romney as under Mr. Obama, but slightly more said they would do worse if the president was re-elected.
With less than seven months before Election Day, a furious scramble is under way by Democrats to define their opponent. Mr. Romney’s bruises from the Republican primary fight are evident — only 29 percent of voters have a favorable view of him — but more than one-third say they have yet to form an opinion, creating a chance for him to introduce himself as a fix-it man who can improve the economic circumstances of Americans.
“We need a president who has a business background, and Mitt Romney’s business background is tremendous,” Michael Larson, 55, a salesman and independent voter from Minneapolis, said Wednesday in a follow-up interview. “He has a vision that will bring the country back to economic strength.”
Taxing the Rich
While the poll shows that Mr. Romney has a significant entree with voters who are frustrated at the direction of the country, Mr. Obama may have the upper hand when it comes to economic policy debates. A majority of voters say upper-income Americans pay less than their fair share of taxes, while half say capital gains and dividends should be taxed at the same rate as income from work — a disparity highlighted by Mr. Romney’s own effective tax rate of about 15 percent.
A week after dispatching his chief Republican rival, Rick Santorum, Mr. Romney has solidified support within his party. A majority of Republican primary voters, 54 percent, say they want to see Mr. Romney become the nominee, including a plurality of evangelical Christians, a group that formed Mr. Santorum’s base of support.
The poll highlighted a lack of strong excitement among some Republican voters for Mr. Romney’s candidacy, with just one in three saying they would enthusiastically support him in November. While that is hardly a resounding endorsement, it may be a temporary shortcoming that can be overcome by the fierce resistance among conservative Republicans to Mr. Obama.
Mr. Romney also faces considerable hurdles as he begins presenting his views to a wider audience. The poll found that more than 6 in 10 voters think Mr. Romney says what people want to hear, rather than what he believes. The opinion of Mr. Obama is more closely divided, with 46 percent saying he says what he believes and 51 percent saying he says what people want to hear.
Mr. Romney’s wealth also creates an uneasy relationship with many voters. Only about one in seven voters say he cares a lot about the needs and problems of people like them, compared with one-third of voters who think Mr. Obama cares a lot about their needs and problems. Only one-third of voters say they can relate to Mr. Romney, while nearly half say they can relate to Mr. Obama.
The nationwide poll was conducted from last Friday through Tuesday on land-line telephones and cellphones with 957 adults, including 852 registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for all adults and voters.
Nearly 4 in 10 Americans say they have been falling behind financially, an 11-point increase from four years ago. About one-quarter of people say the future of the next generation will be better, while nearly half say it will be worse. Nearly the same percentage of Americans expressed a bleak outlook in early 1992, when the first President George Bush faced re-election and ultimately lost to Bill Clinton.
Mr. Obama has an approval rating of 48 percent, the poll found, and 6 in 10 respondents say the country is on the wrong track. Those and other findings in the poll offer a clear warning for a president seeking re-election and trying to cast the race as a choice between him and Mr. Romney, rather than a referendum on his first term in office.
“I want to give the business guy a chance,” said Craig Lemoine, 47, a Republican from Las Vegas who drives a U.P.S. truck. “No one wants to put the C.E.O. in there. Everyone thinks he’ll just make the rich people richer and the poor people poorer. “But how do you know if you don’t give him a chance?”
The first week of the head-to-head campaign between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney has been dominated by a debate about the role of women and working mothers, after primary fights over insurance coverage for contraception and other women’s health issues. The survey found that voters do not place a priority on some of these issues when choosing a candidate, focusing instead on jobs and the economy.
Over all, the poll found that Mr. Obama led Mr. Romney 49 percent to 43 percent among women, and that they are more likely than men to express confidence in the president’s ability to deal with economic issues. Among men, Mr. Romney held a similar advantage over Mr. Obama.
Economy on the Mend
For now, the economy is the central focus of the campaign, with income inequality and economic populism strong themes of the president’s re-election pitch.
Americans are showing gradual signs of optimism: 33 percent say the economy is getting better now, compared with 14 percent who said the same last October. But only 27 percent of voters said Mr. Obama had changed the country for the better, compared with 20 percent who said he had changed it for the worse and 47 percent who said he had not changed it at all.
The survey offers a snapshot of the landscape as the race takes shape. Democrats have put a particular focus on Mr. Romney’s wealth, and this could already be influencing some voters.
“I’m fairly confident that should he get into office he would push to ensure that the upper class continues to get even more benefits while the lower class gets fewer,” said Gillian Gallentine, 57, an independent voter and retiree from El Paso. She added, “I think Romney would try to reverse a lot of what Obama did and try to give things back to the rich.”
Dalia Sussman and Marina Stefan contributed reporting.