President Obama’s political standing is rising along with voters’ optimism that the economy is getting better, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, a shift that coincides with continued Republican disquiet over the field of candidates seeking to replace him.
Consecutive months of job growth, the bullish stock market and improving consumer demand appear to be benefiting — for now, at least — a president who stated outright three years ago that his chances for a second term would depend on his ability to persuade the country that its economy was on the mend by this very month.
In what could be a turning point, the percentage of people who said they believed the economic outlook was improving is now greater, by double digits, than the percentage of those who said they believed it was getting worse, a reversal from a low point in September, when pessimists outnumbered optimists by more than three to one.
Showing steady improvement since early December, Mr. Obama’s approval rating has reached the 50 percent mark in The Times/CBS News poll — an important baseline in presidential politics and his highest approval rating since May 2010 (excepting the brief bump he received after Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011).
For the first time since the election season began in earnest in the late summer, as many Democratic voters as Republicans said they were more enthusiastic than usual about voting in the 2012 presidential election. That would appear to wipe out the “enthusiasm gap” that promised to help Republicans greatly next fall.
Their combative contest remains in flux, with former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania now in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney after Mr. Santorum’s victories in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. Mr. Santorum’s sharp rise in the polls underscores some of Mr. Romney’s perceived weaknesses, with voters saying that Mr. Santorum shares their values and that they connect to his blue-collar economic message.
Polls can capture only a specific moment in time. To the extent that Mr. Obama’s improved standing is tied to the economy, it is tenuous. Grim economic news continues to trickle out of Europe. Iranian saber rattling is increasing the sense of instability in the Middle East. Even the White House warns that jobless numbers are as likely to rise in the coming months as they are to dip.
More people said they disapproved of Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy, 50 percent, than said they approved, 44 percent. And he received poor marks on his handling of the federal budget deficit, with 59 percent of poll respondents expressing disapproval.
Mr. Obama led all four remaining Republican presidential candidates in theoretical one-on-one competitions, including the presumed front-runner, Mr. Romney But the president’s general election prospects could change drastically when the opposition finally settles on a nominee, who will most likely win an immediate boost of support and enthusiasm, if history is a guide.
Yet the poll results show how hard it is to predict how quickly the Republicans will reach that juncture.
Eight nominating contests, about 20 closely watched debates and several months of heavy state-by-state campaigning have seemingly failed to settle a restive Republican electorate that is highly motivated in its goal of limiting Mr. Obama to a single term but shows lingering signs of nervous indecision about whom it wants to assign the task of taking him on.
Republican primary voters indicated they were less than satisfied with their choices, with more than 6 in 10 saying they wished there were more candidates to choose from, and nearly the same number saying they could change their minds. The instability of the Republican presidential race is now redounding to the benefit of Mr. Santorum, whose new strength points up the persistent weaknesses that Mr. Romney has with those who describe themselves as evangelical Christians, supportive of the Tea Party or conservative, all of whom favored Mr. Santorum in the latest poll.
Republicans who described themselves as primary and caucus voters still overwhelmingly view Mr. Romney as the candidate best equipped to defeat Mr. Obama, but that was not the most important quality for them in the poll; it ranked far behind “strong moral character.”
That mood has appeared to help Mr. Santorum, who frequently promotes his family life with his wife, Karen, and their seven children, and has long had a reputation for his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
“Rick Santorum seems by and large the most truly conservative candidate, instead of just portraying himself as a conservative,” Jonathan Reed, 52, of Sylvester, Ga., said in a follow-up interview.
But Republican primary voters also chose economic issues as paramount over social issues, and they viewed Mr. Santorum as the candidate who would most help middle-class Americans. In addition, more than two-thirds of them said his political philosophy was just right, not too conservative or too liberal.
Conversely, nearly a third of Republican primary voters said Mr. Romneywould favor the rich, roughly the same number that said he was not conservative enough, a perception that could nonetheless help him in a general election: In theoretical contests against Mr. Obama, he performs best among the Republican field.
But the poll showed that even Mr. Romney would lose to Mr. Obama by six percentage points among all registered voters if the election were held today. The past couple of months appear to have greatly harmed Mr. Romney’s standing with independent voters, who favored him over Mr. Obama in January by 46 percent to 39 percent but now favor Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney by 49 percent to 38 percent.
Mr. Romney does have an apparent opening against Mr. Santorum. Nearly half of all registered voters said they had not yet formed an opinion about him, which Mr. Romney’s team is likely to exploit by trying to define him in negative terms in the lead-up to remaining primaries and caucuses. And only one in seven Republican primary voters said Mr. Santorum had the best chance of defeating Mr. Obama.
Roughly the same number named Newt Gingrich, who was in a statistical tie for third place with Representative Ron Paul of Texas, though both lagged far behind Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney.
The nationwide poll was based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 8 to Feb. 13 on land lines and cell phones with 1,197 adults, including 331 self-described Republican primary or caucus voters, and has margins of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points for all adults and five percentage points for Republican voters.
Mr. Romney still did well in the poll when it came to his No. 1 campaign theme of the economy. More than 7 in 10 Republican primary voters said they were very or somewhat confident that Mr. Romney, who once headed the investment firm Bain Capital, could be trusted to make the right decisions about the economy.
“I think with his background of making money he can make the nation some money,” said Daniel Wiechart, 21, of Danville, Ky., who is preparing to begin law school. “He exudes an economically responsible aura, if you will.”