Obama Still Leading Romney, Despite Economic Hit

President Barack Obama continues to suffer the effects of economic pessimism in the race for the White House, but maintains a lead amid voters' personal misgivings about challenger Mitt Romney, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney
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Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

The survey shows the Democratic incumbent leading his Republican rival by 49 percent to 43 percent, a slightly larger lead than he enjoyed a month earlier.

Obama and his Democratic allies have been pounding Romney with negative television adson his business record and tax returns over the last few weeks. But unease over the state of the economyhas kept Obama's share of the vote and his overall job approval (49 percent) below the 50 percent mark. Six in 10 Americans continue to see the nation as "off on the wrong track," 53 percent disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy, and 55 percent say they've grown less optimistic about economic conditions lately.

Yet the countervailing weight holding down Romney is how voters perceive him personally. Some 35 percent of voters view the former Massachusetts governor favorably, while 40 percent view him unfavorably. That makes him the first presidential candidate viewed unfavorably by a plurality of voters in advance of his summer nominating convention since Bill Clinton in 1992.

Fully 67 percent of voters say they like Obamapersonally, whether or not they approve of his policies. Just 47 percent say the same of Romney. That leaves him vulnerable to the questions Democrats have raised about his refusal to release more than two years of past tax returns. By a 32 percent to 4 percent margin, voters say what they have heard about that issue lately has made then feel more negatively toward Romney than more positively.

"It's hurting him because it plays into the heart of what concerns them about Romney — do I know him, can I relate to him, can I trust him," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducts the NBC/WSJ survey with his Republican counterpart Bill McInturff. "Romney continues to have a lack of rapport with American voters."

Perhaps most remarkably, given Obama's status as the nation's first African-American president, more people (50 percent) say Obama has the sort of background and values they identify with than say the same (42 percent) of Romney. Whether or not it would improve voters' opinions of Romney, the survey suggests that voters would give the Republican challenger some latitude to counter-punch more aggressively at Democratic attacks. By 22 percent to 12 percent, voters say Obama rather than Romney has run a more negative campaign so far.

Obama benefits from overwhelming support among minority voters; 93 percent of African-Americans and 67 percent of Latinos back him over Romney at this point. But Latinos and voters under 35, another Obama-friendly constituency, both display lower interest in the election than voters as a whole, casting doubt on whether the Obama campaign can generate sufficient turnout to offset Romney's edge among other groups.

One subplot to the larger campaign story is the fight for support among white voters. Romney currently leads Obama among whites by 51 percent to 40 percent on the strength of his twenty-percentage edge among white men. But Obama trails among college-educated white women by just two percentage points, 48 percent to 46 percent. At this point that constituency, a target of Obama's campaign discussion of contraception and gay marriage, represents "a block from Romney consolidating the white vote he's going to need" to win, McInturff said.

Among the dwindling number of undecided voters, attitudes are negative toward both candidates — but more negative toward Romney. When Hart and McInturff combined attitudes among the undecided voters in the last three NBC/WSJ polls, 44 percent expressed negative views of Romney, compared to 16 percent who expressed positive views. For Obama, 42 percent viewed him negatively, compared to 29 percent who viewed him positively.

The telephone survey of 1,000 registered voters, conducted July 18-22, carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points. It included 300 voters reached on cell phones.

The results showed significant differences among those reached by cell phones, reflecting Obama's strength among younger voters who rely on them more heavily. Obama led Romney by 51 percent to 38 percent among those reached by cell phones, but only by 48 percent to 45 percent among those reached on landlines.

-By CNBC's John Harwood