The Presidential Race

President Obama's bid for a second term stands on the edge of a knife.

That's the overriding message of the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll. In the survey, the country divides almost in half on Obama's overall performance as president, his impact on the economy, and  the choice between him and Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. On the ballot test, the needle bends slightly toward Obama; on the critical job-approval measure, it tilts slightly away from him. But all of these gauges show that the president is operating with virtually no margin for error — a conclusion underscored by the fact that this survey was completed before the release of last week's deeply disappointing jobs report.

The latest Heartland Monitor Poll surveyed 1,000 adults, including 871 registered voters, by landline and cell phone from May 19-23. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for the entire sample and 3.3 percentage points for the registered-voter subset.

The poll's first 2012 ballot test has Obama leading Romney among registered voters by 44 percent to 41 percent. (Unlike some other polls, this survey did not push undecided voters to lean toward one candidate.) But Obama's job-approval rating, usually the most revealing measure of an incumbent's standing, dipped to 47 percent in the latest poll, with 48 percent disapproving. That's a decline from a 51 percent approval rating in the Heartland Monitor survey last March, albeit within the margin of error.

Both the ballot test with Romney and the job-approval assessment capture the persistence of the racial and class divide that has characterized reactions to Obama. In the matchup against Romney, Obama leads among nonwhite voters by 65 percent to 21 percent. That's a big lead for Obama, but it represents erosion from 2008, when he won a commanding 80 percent of all minority voters.

Obama trails in the poll among whites, drawing just 37 percent to Romney's 49 percent. The president attracts only 32 percent of whites without a college education, compared with 50 percent for Romney, a result consistent with other recent national polls (and a decline from Obama's modest 40 percent showing with those voters in 2008). Obama is more competitive among whites with at least a four-year college degree, attracting 42 percent to Romney's 47 percent. Obama captured 47 percent of college-plus whites last time. That's a slightly weaker showing for Obama than in most polls, largely because the Heartland Monitor records Romney (at 46 percent) and Obama (at 44 percent) essentially splitting college-educated white women; most other surveys have found Obama leading among those voters, the most Democratic-leaning portion of the white electorate.

All of these results closely track attitudes toward the president's job performance. Almost two-thirds of minorities, but only two-fifths of whites, say they approve. Since January 2010, Obama's approval rating among whites in the Heartland Monitor has exceeded 41 percent only in the poll conducted after the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. Just 41 percent of independents approved of Obama's performance in the new poll.

The recent drumbeat of disappointing economic news, particularly the stock-market swoon and May's bleak jobs report, threatens the survey's best news for Obama. In the poll, 62 percent of all adults say they expect the economy to improve over the next year. That continues a steady increase from 50 percent last October to 60 percent this March. Minorities are by far the most optimistic, with nearly four in five expecting improvement; about three-fifths of college-plus whites and just over half of noncollege whites agree. Those polled remain optimistic, if less exuberantly, about their personal situation: Forty-four percent expect their own finances to improve over the next year, compared with just 12 percent who expect it to deteriorate. Forty-one percent expect no change. That's comparable to the numbers since last December but significantly better than the results from early last year.

The increasing number of Americans who believe that the economy is gaining ground has been key to Obama's improved standing since last summer. If the recent economic setbacks reverse this slowly spreading optimism, the impact on Obama could be devastating. Here's one measure of how devastating: In the new survey, among those who believe the economy will improve over the next year, Obama leads Romney by 65 percent to 24 percent. Among those who believe the economy will decline over the next year, Romney leads Obama by 73 percent to 9 percent.

Americans' assessments of their current economic situation haven't improved as much since last fall as their expectations for the future. Just 43 percent describe their current situation as excellent or good, while 56 percent call it fair or poor. (That's an improvement within the margin of error from the 39 percent to 60 percent split on that question last October.) On a separate question, only 28 percent of respondents said they are earning enough to live comfortably every month; 52 percent said they can get by but don't have enough money to save; and 17 percent said they are finding "it hard to make ends meet every month." All of those numbers have shown strikingly little change since summer 2009.

Other questions also revealed close divisions that have not changed appreciably over the past couple of years. Thirty-two percent of those surveyed said that Obama's agenda would increase opportunity for people like them to get ahead; 34 percent said that it would diminish their opportunities (the remaining 29 percent said that it would have no impact). Those overall numbers have varied only slightly since December 2010. Going back even earlier, to January 2010, no more than one in four whites have said that Obama's agenda would increase their opportunities.

Likewise, 45 percent said that Obama's economic policies helped to "avoid an even worse economic crisis and are laying the foundation for our eventual economic recovery," while a comparable 46 percent agreed that Obama has "run up a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession or slow the record pace of job losses." Those numbers have varied remarkably little all seven times the Heartland Monitor has posed that question. Similar stability defines attitudes on a third key question that the poll has tested repeatedly, on the effect of Obama's overall agenda. Thirty-seven percent say that the country is "significantly worse off" because of Obama's policies. Only 12 percent say that the nation is already "significantly better off" because of his efforts, but 47 percent still say that his program is moving the country in the right direction, even if it has not produced significant benefits yet. Those numbers have barely budged since April 2010.

A final set of new questions captures how closely divided, and conflicted, voters are today. Asked to assess the two rivals based on a series of traits, more adults deemed Obama as more likely to offer policies that promote opportunity for all, would benefit people like them, and would be better for future generations. But more also said that Romney stood a greater chance of bringing the deficit under control, and they gave the former governor an edge (46 percent to 40 percent) on perhaps the most salient question in this election, that of who "has the experience and skills needed to improve the economy." (Whites preferred Romney
more emphatically.)

Yet when voters were asked how they thought their personal finances would fare over the next few years, slightly more said they would be better off under Obama (40 percent) than Romney (37 percent). This election is already teetering on a knife's edge, and the economy's performance in the months ahead may well decide which way it falls.