By NANCY BENAC and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans are feeling markedly better about the country’s future and about Barack Obama’s job performance, but the president’s re-election race against Republican Mitt Romney remains a neck-and-neck proposition as Election Day creeps ever closer, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

Buoyed by good mojo coming out of last month’s national political conventions, Obama’s approval rating is back above 50 percent for the first time since May, and the share of Americans who think the country is moving in the right direction is at its highest level since just after the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

Romney, his campaign knocked off-stride in recent weeks, has lost his pre-convention edge on the top issue of the campaign — the economy.

The poll results vividly underscore the importance that turnout will play in determining the victor in Campaign 2012: Among all adults, Obama has a commanding lead, favored by 52 percent of Americans to just 37 percent for Romney. Yet among those most likely to vote, the race is drum tight.

Obama is supported by 47 percent of likely voters and Romney by 46 percent, promising an all-out fight to the finish by the two campaigns to gin up enthusiasm among core supporters and dominate get-out-the-vote operations. That’s an area where Obama claimed a strong advantage in 2008 and Republicans reigned four years earlier.

Americans have been increasingly focused on the presidential race since the two candidates barreled out of their summer conventions into the fall campaign: Nearly three-fourths of adults say they’re paying close attention now, up modestly from earlier in the summer. And with early voting scheduled to be under way in two dozen states by week’s end, just 17 percent of likely voters remain undecided or say that they might change their minds.

Count Sandra Townsend, a 57-year-old retiree from Brookings, Ore., among the 84 percent of likely voters who say their decision in this campaign has been an easy one.

“I like what Obama does,” she said flatly.

Townsend, a Democrat, said she’ll watch the upcoming presidential debates closely but adds, “No, I’m not going to change my mind.”

Sixty-eight-year-old Vicki Deakins, a Republican sizing up the race from Garland, Texas, is equally certain in her choice of Romney. But she exudes more enthusiasm for GOP running mate Paul Ryan than for Romney himself.

“I don’t know that Romney knows how to state emphatically, with fire and passion and guts and all that other stuff, what he wants to do,” she says. “I don’t think he’ll be a great orator. But I do think he’ll get the job done.”

Among those voters still making up their minds or open to changing their positions — the coveted bloc of “persuadable” voters — 56 percent see their choice this year as a hard decision.

Twenty-three-year-old Devin Vinson of Starksville, Mass., says he’s waiting to hear more about the candidates’ positions on education, foreign policy and more.

Vinson, a Republican, is leaning toward Obama but says the close race has him weighing his decision this time more carefully than four years ago, when his family persuaded him to back Republican John McCain.

“That was my first time voting and I just didn’t really care about it back then,” he admits.

The poll shows most Americans say they have a good idea of what each candidate would do if elected, and 59 percent who know a good deal about both men think Obama will win a second term.

For all of the recent positive signs for Obama, the public still holds some sour opinions on the economy. Sixty-one percent of likely voters describe the economy as poor. Just over half think the economic outlook has gotten worse over the last four years. And 57 percent think unemployment will get worse or stay the same over the next four years.

But Obama has made some gains on economic expectations, with growing numbers of voters anticipating things will get better in the coming year. Forty-eight percent of registered voters think things will get better, up from 41 percent before the conventions.

L’Tonya Ford, a 42-year-old Democrat from Detroit, said that progress on the economy has been slower than she’d like but that all signs point to Romney making things worse.

Obama’s “trying to do something,” she says. “Give him four more years and let him do what he’s doing.”

Romney lost his pre-convention edge on the economy as his campaign was distracted by criticism of his hasty response to the Obama administration’s handling of the eruption of violence in Egypt and Libya last week and his failure to mention the war in Afghanistan or thank the troops in his prime-time convention speech. The two candidates run about even in the poll on who would best handle the economy or the federal budget deficit, but Obama has narrow advantages on protecting the country, social issues and health care.

Just this week, after the poll was conducted, Romney has been getting flak for his caught-on-tape statement that he doesn’t worry about the 47 percent of the country that pays no income taxes and describes them as believing they are victims and dependent on government. Romney advisers say the remarks may dominate news coverage for a time but they dispute the notion that the comments will fundamentally change the election.

“This has not been the best three weeks in the history of American politics for the Romney campaign,” allows GOP consultant Rich Galen. But he said the most significant trend is that the economy remains “a great weight around the ankles of Obama.”

The deciding factor may well be turnout.

“If turnout reverts to normal presidential patterns, then Obama’s likely to be in pretty big trouble,” Galen said. “If he can catch lightning in a bottle again, then he should be OK.”

Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, meanwhile, zeroes in on the significance of Obama’s job approval rating edging back up above 50 percent. Fifty-two percent of likely voters approved of how Obama’s handling his job, as did 56 percent of all adults. Further, 42 percent of Americans think the country is heading in the right direction, up from figures in the low- to mid-30s over the summer.

“If you were buying a stock and you were looking at the underlying trends, you would be putting your futures on Obama,” Lehane said.

William Galston, a former Clinton administration official now at the Brookings Institution, said Obama’s rising job approval figure “has to be regarded as a good leading indicator.”

“If that holds up, then his chances are better than they were a month ago, when his approval was stuck around 47 percent,” Galston said.

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 1,282 registered voters and 807 likely voters. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points, for registered voters it is 3.4 percentage points and likely voters it is 4.3 percentage points.

AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and AP writers Stacy Anderson and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.

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How the AP-GfK poll was conducted

 

The Associated Press-GfK Poll on the 2012 presidential election and politics was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Sept. 13-17. It is based on landline and cellphone telephone interviews with a nationally representative random sample of 1,512 adults, including 1,282 registered voters and 807 likely voters. Interviews were conducted with 906 respondents on landline telephones and 606 on cellular phones.

 

Digits in the phone numbers dialed were generated randomly to reach households with unlisted and listed landline and cellphone numbers.

 

Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.

 

As is done routinely in surveys, results were weighted, or adjusted, to ensure that responses accurately reflect the population’s makeup by factors such as age, sex, education and race. In addition, the weighting took into account patterns of phone use — landline only, cell only and both types — by region.

 

No more than 1 time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 3.2 percentage points from the answers that would be obtained if all adults in the U.S. were polled. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for registered voters and plus or minus 4.3 percentage points for likely voters.

 

There are other sources of potential error in polls, including the wording and order of questions.

Topline results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com and http://surveys.ap.org.

The questions and results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com .

AP-GfK Poll: Most say the US is heading the wrong way, hope for new direction come November

By JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress has checked out, and the American people have noticed.

Three-quarters of Americans doubt the federal government will address the important problems facing the country this year, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

All told, only 28 percent of Americans think the nation is heading in the right direction, the lowest level in August of an election year since 2008. It’s about on par with 2006, when Democrats took control of the U.S. House amid a backlash to the Iraq war.

This time around, it’s not clear whether either party will benefit from the disaffection.

One-third say they hope the Republicans take control of Congress outright this fall — which the GOP can accomplish with a net gain of six seats in the U.S. Senate while holding the U.S. House. The same share want to see Democrats lead Congress — a far less likely possibility.

The final third? They say it just doesn’t matter who takes control of Congress.

Overall, just 13 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress overall is handling its job.

There are some signs in the new poll that Republicans have gained ground as the height of the campaign approaches. In May, they trailed Democrats a bit on who ought to control Congress. Partisans are about equally likely to say they’d like to see their own in charge of Congress after November 4, with about three-quarters in each party saying they hope their side winds up in control. Democrats are a bit less apt to say they want their own party to win than they were in May, 74 percent in the new poll compared with 80 percent then.

And the GOP now holds narrow advantages over Democrats on handling an array of top issues, including the economy, immigration and the federal budget.

But neither party is trusted much to manage the federal government, with 27 percent having faith in the GOP to 24 percent in Democrats. More people, 31 percent, say they trust neither party to run the federal government.

Fewer people have confidence in the federal government’s ability to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country in 2014 than at the start of the year, with 74 percent saying they have little or no confidence. That’s a slight change from the 70 percent who said so in a December AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey. That shift in confidence stems from a small drop-off among Democrats. While 56 percent lacked confidence in December, 62 percent say the same now.

Overall, few express faith in those currently on Capitol Hill. Just 36 percent say they’d like to see their own member of Congress re-elected, 62 percent say they want someone else to win this November. So far, just three House incumbents have been ousted in primaries this year, and none in the Senate. The Congressional approval rating, 13 percent in the new poll, lags behind President Barack Obama’s 40 percent.

Though the economy pushed the nation’s “right direction” figures to historic lows in the fall of 2008, that does not seem to be the culprit in the new poll. About a third (35 percent) say the economy is in good shape, about the same as in May, and 58 percent say the economy has stayed about the same in the past month.

The decline in optimism about the country’s path in the new poll seems to mirror those in October 2013 and August 2011, when congressional inaction led to the threat of a government shutdown in 2011 and a partial one in 2013. Among Democrats, the share saying the nation is heading in the right direction dipped 11 points since May, to 49 percent, while among independents, it’s down slightly to 23 percent. Among Republicans, the 9 percent saying the country is heading the right way is similar to May. The October 2013 and August 2011 declines in right direction were also driven by sharp drops among Democrats and independents.

Among those who say they are highly likely to vote this fall, just 8 percent say they approve of the way Congress is handling its job, though 43 percent would like to see their member of Congress re-elected, a bit higher than among all adults. Republicans have an edge among this group as the party more preferred to control Congress, 43 percent to 34 percent, with 23 percent saying it doesn’t matter.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted July 24-28, 2014, using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,044 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents. It is larger for subgroups.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

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AP-GfK Poll: No agreement on how to pay for highways

By JOAN LOWY and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Small wonder Congress has kept federal highway and transit programs teetering on the edge of insolvency for years, unable to find a politically acceptable long-term source of funds. The public can’t make up its mind on how to pay for them either.

Six in 10 Americans think the economic benefits of good highways, railroads and airports outweigh the cost to taxpayers. Yet there is scant support for some of the most frequently discussed options for paying for construction of new roads or the upkeep of existing ones, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

Among those who drive places multiple times per week, 62 percent say the benefits outweigh the costs. Among those who drive less than once a week or not at all, 55 percent say the costs of road improvement are worthwhile.

Yet a majority of all Americans — 58 percent — oppose raising federal gasoline taxes to fund transportation projects such as the repair, replacement or expansion of roads and bridges. Only 14 percent support an increase. And by a better than 2-to-1 margin, Americans oppose having private companies pay for construction of new roads and bridges in exchange for the right to charge tolls. Moving to a usage tax based on how many miles a vehicle drives also draws more opposition than support — 40 percent oppose it, while 20 percent support it.

Support for shifting more responsibility for paying for such projects to state and local government is a tepid 30 percent.

“Congress is actually reflecting what people want,” said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a transportation think tank. “People want to have a federal (transportation) program and they don’t want to pay for it.”

Last week, Congress cobbled together $10.8 billion to keep transportation aid flowing to states by changing how employers fund worker pension programs, extending customs user fees and transferring money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks. The money was needed to make up a shortfall between aid promised to states and revenue raised by the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax and the 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax, which haven’t been increased in more than 20 years.

It’s the fifth time in the last six years that Congress has patched a hole in the federal Highway Trust Fund that pays for highway and transit aid. Each time it gets more difficult for lawmakers to find the money without increasing the federal budget deficit. Critics described the pension funding changes used this time as budget gimmicks that would cost the government more in the long run and undermine employee pension programs.

The latest patch cleared Congress about three hours before midnight last Thursday, the day before the Transportation Department said it would begin cutting back aid payments to states. The current fix is only expected to cover the revenue gap through next May, when Congress will be back where it started unless lawmakers act sooner.

The most direct solution would be to raise fuel taxes. That’s what three blue-ribbon federal commissions have recommended. But opposition to a gas tax increase cuts across party lines, although Republicans are more apt to oppose an increase, 70 percent, than Democrats, 52 percent.

“Every time we turn around there’s another tax, and our gas taxes are so high now,” said James Lane, 52, of Henry County in rural south-central Virginia, who described himself as leaning toward the GOP.

Lane favors allowing companies to pay for the construction of new or expanded roads and bridges in exchange for the right impose tolls on motorists, often for many decades. There have been projects like that in Virginia, but since those roads are in more populated areas of the state where he doesn’t drive it makes sense to have the people who use them pay for them, he said.

But Michael Murphy, 63, a data services contractor who lives near San Antonio, Texas, where a high-speed public-private toll road is scheduled to open this fall, said he’d rather see gas taxes increased than tolls imposed on drivers. Roads benefit everyone, even if indirectly, so it’s only fair that everyone who drives pays something toward their cost, he said.

A majority of those surveyed, 56 percent, say traffic in the area where they live has gotten worse in the last five years. Only 6 percent say traffic has improved in their area, and 33 percent that it’s stayed about the same.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted July 24-28 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,044 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents, larger for subgroups.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

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AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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