By JENNIFER AGIESTAAssociated Press
The presidential race remains a tight contest, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, but beyond that near-even split on the vote lie shifting public views of the nation's outlook and an electorate beginning to tune in to watch the candidates duke it out for the 17 percent of likely voters who haven't yet committed to a candidate.
Some highlights from the new poll:
WHO'S BACKING WHOM
President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney stand about even among likely voters, with 47 percent backing Obama and 46 percent Romney. But there are sharp demographic divides driving each candidate's support.
Women broadly back the president (55 percent for Obama vs. 39 percent for Romney) while men favor the GOP ticket (53 percent for Romney to 40 percent for Obama). The gender gap tightens some in the suburbs, where women tilt Obama by a narrower 51 percent to 45 percent margin, while suburban men favor Romney, 54 percent to 40 percent.
White voters without college degrees favor Romney by more than 30 points over Obama (63 percent back Romney compared with 30 percent behind Obama), a steeper split than the 18-point margin John McCain held over Obama among the group in 2008. White voters with college degrees are about evenly split (50 percent Obama to 48 percent Romney), about on par with 2008.
Younger voters are less apt to be likely voters than their elder counterparts, hinting at the turnout battle to come, but voters under age 45 remain solidly in Obama's camp, 54 percent to 41 percent. Senior citizens, on the other hand, lean Romney, 52 percent to 41 percent for Obama.
ARE YOU BETTER OFF?
Just 27 percent of likely voters say they are better off financially than they were four years ago, and only 35 percent say the country has improved in that time. In fact, most, 51 percent, say the nation's economic situation has gotten worse since 2008. There is a sharp political divide on whether the economy has made gains in the last four years, with 63 percent of Democratic voters saying it's gotten better while just 6 percent of Republicans say the same.
A BOOST AMONG DEMOCRATS
The public's improved outlook on basic questions about the country's direction rests heavily on improvements among Democrats, suggesting the president made a strong case to his base during his convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Democrats' approval rating for the president rose 8 points since August, and 70 percent of the president's partisans now say the nation is heading in the right direction, up 11 points in the last few weeks. Two-thirds of Democrats now say they expect the economy to improve in the next year, the highest share in AP-GfK polling since the first time the question was asked in March 2011.
VOTERS TUNING IN
Interest in the campaign has deepened following the two parties' conventions, with 69 percent of likely voters saying they have a "great deal" of interest in following campaign news. Republicans (75 percent) are following a bit more intently than Democrats (68 percent). Those voters who say their votes are not yet locked in are among the least focused: 59 percent have a great deal of interest in following campaign news.
Most came out of the conventions with a pretty good idea of what each candidate would do if elected, a shift from May. At that early stage of the campaign, 67 percent of adults said they had a good idea what Obama might do, compared with just 44 percent who felt that way about Romney.
The incumbent remains a more well-known commodity. Among all adults in the new poll, 56 percent said they knew what to expect from Romney, 70 percent from Obama.
The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted Sept. 13-17, 2012, by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,512 adults nationwide, including 807 likely voters. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points; for likely voters it is 4.3 points.
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