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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Online:

http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

 

 

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 filing tax returns is easy; few willing to pay more for simpler forms

By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

 WASHINGTON (AP) — Struggling to figure out your federal tax return? You’re not alone, but you’re in the minority.

With the tax filing deadline looming next week, a majority of Americans say completing a federal tax return is easy, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

The findings defy conventional wisdom in Washington, where politicians have made careers out of promising a simpler tax system. In another blow to advocates of tax reform, almost no one is willing to pay higher taxes in exchange for a simpler code.

“If you’ve got the equivalent of a high school degree and you know how to do math, it’s very simple,” said Sara Thornton, a small business owner from East Granby, Conn.

Only 7 percent of those surveyed say they would be willing to pay more in federal taxes if the process of filling out a tax return were easier. Some 90 percent say “no, thanks.”

“No, because I don’t know that it is that difficult,” said Alicia Brown of suburban Des Moines, Iowa. “We already pay outlandish taxes because we live in Iowa. We have very high real estate taxes.”

The tax-writing committees in Congress have spent the past several years trying to build momentum for the herculean task of simplifying the tax code. One reason it’s so difficult is there are bound to be winners and losers. Sweeping changes to precious tax breaks will undoubtedly leave some people paying more, while others pay less.

One selling point for tax reform has been a simpler tax form. Ever hear a politician say you should be able to fill out your taxes on the back of a postcard? You’ll probably hear it again during this fall’s elections.

The National Taxpayer Advocate says filers spend a total of 6.1 billion hours a year preparing tax returns, at a cost of $168 billion. According to the IRS, 90 percent of filers either pay a tax preparer or use computer software to help them fill out their returns.

But 58 percent in the AP-GfK poll say completing a federal tax return is easy. Thirty-eight percent call it hard.

Fully 86 percent who have completed their tax forms say they are extremely confident or very confident that they filled them out correctly.

Not surprisingly, higher income taxpayers are more likely to say that filling out tax forms is difficult. Wealthy people tend to have more complicated taxes because they often have multiple sources of income and they are more likely to itemize their deductions, making them eligible for more tax breaks.

Forty-five percent of those with incomes above $100,000 said it is hard, compared with 33 percent among those making less than $50,000.

Through March 28, the IRS has processed 89 million returns. About 82 percent have qualified for refunds, averaging $2,831. That’s about $207 billion in tax refunds. Almost 91 percent of returns have been filed electronically.

Americans think most of their fellow taxpayers are honest, but not all of them. On average, poll-takers estimate that about one-third of Americans intentionally cheat when filling out their tax returns.

Erma Pierce of Poplar Bluff in southeast Missouri said she thinks about half of people cheat on their taxes, and she takes a dim view of it.

“You’re not supposed to cheat, lie or steal,” Pierce said. “It’s against the Bible.”

Thornton, the small business owner in Connecticut, said her estimate depends on the definition of cheating.

“People think of cheating as a case of, I reported I have nine children and I only have two. Or I reported I only made $20,000 this year and I actually made $50,000,” Thornton said. “They think of those forms of cheating, the absolute blatant, extravagant forms.”

Thornton’s definition of cheating is broader, which is why she thinks 80 percent to 90 percent of people cheat on their taxes.

“The minor forms of cheating are things like, well, I can increase my charitable deduction by $200,” Thornton said. “Most people consider, quote, unquote padding their income tax reporting or shaving it off a little bit, they don’t necessarily view that as cheating.”

“I define that as cheating only because it really is.”

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted March 20-24, 2014 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,012 adults, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents.

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 News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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Online:

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

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AP-GfK Poll: Election indicators suggest GOP edge

By, JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

(AP) – The latest Associated Press-GfK poll holds bad news for President Barack Obama, but as the November elections draw closer, there are ominous signs for congressional Democrats as well.

A look at the key findings from the March poll on this year’s election and the burgeoning 2016 presidential field.

GOP GAINING GROUND

Preferences for control of Congress are tight, but Republicans have gained on Democrats since January. Thirty-six percent in last month’s poll said they would rather see the Democrats in charge of Congress and 37 percent chose Republicans.

Democrats held a narrow advantage on that question in January, when 39 percent favored the Democrats and 32 percent the Republicans.

Democrats are in the majority in the Senate while Republicans run the House.

The shift stems largely from a change among those most interested in politics.

In the new poll, registered voters who are most strongly interested in politics favored the Republicans by 14 percentage points, 51 percent to 37 percent. In January, this group was about evenly split, with 42 percent preferring Democrats and 45 percent the Republicans.

That’s not the only positive sign in the poll for the Republicans.

Favorable views of the GOP have improved, with 38 percent overall now saying they hold a favorable impression of the Party. Republicans’ positive view of their own party has increased from 57 percent in January to 72 percent now.

Even impressions of the tea party movement have shifted more positive in recent months. GOP favorability still lags behind that of the Democrats, however, with 43 percent holding a favorable view of the Democratic Party.

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CONGRESSIONAL APPROVAL STAGNANT

Congressional approval is stagnant and negative, with just 16 percent saying they approve while 82 percent disapprove. Among those who have “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of interest in politics, 90 percent disapprove, including 61 percent who strongly disapprove.

Nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) would like to see their own member of Congress re-elected, an improvement since January. Among registered voters who say they pay a great deal of attention to politics, 44 percent say they would like to see their current member re-elected, compared with 33 percent in January.

Here, there’s a glimmer of hope for Democrats. Those who consider themselves Democrats are now more likely than Republicans to say their own member of Congress ought to be re-elected. Not all Democrats live in districts represented by Democrats, of course, but it represents a shift in opinion since January.

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WHO’S IN CHARGE

With control of Congress divided between the parties, most Americans say Obama has a lot or quite a bit of control over what the federal government does, outpacing the share who say the Democrats or Republicans in Congress are in control.

Partisans tend to see the opposition as the controlling force, with Republicans more apt than Democrats to see Obama in charge, and Democrats more likely to say the Republicans have the upper hand.

Six in 10 (62 percent) of those with a great deal or quite a bit of interest in politics say Obama has a lot or quite a bit of control of what the federal government does. Just half (51 percent) of those closely attuned to politics say Democrats in Congress exert a similar influence over what the federal government does and 40 percent say the same about Republicans in Congress.

There’s little change since December in which party Americans trust more to handle major issues.

Democrats’ strong points are on handling social issues, including same-sex marriage (31 percent prefer Democrats, 17 percent the Republicans) and abortion (30 percent prefer Democrats, 22 percent Republicans). Republicans have the edge on protecting the country, 34 percent to 16 percent, a slightly wider margin than they held on the question in December.

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LOOKING TO 2016? NOT SO MUCH

The poll measured impressions of 19 potential 2016 presidential candidates, and found that a majority of those surveyed offered an opinion about just seven of them. The other 12 have quite a lot of introducing themselves to do if they are to make a run for the White House.

Most people said either they hadn’t heard of them or skipped the question.

Hillary Rodham Clinton generated the most positive response of the bunch, with 46 percent viewing the former secretary of state and first lady favorably and 39 percent unfavorably.

Among potential GOP contenders, none generated a net positive reaction from the public, with 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan faring best – 27 percent viewed him favorably, 29 percent unfavorably.

Among Republicans, majorities have favorable impressions of Ryan and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But in a sign that the past isn’t always prologue, nearly half of Republicans say they don’t know enough to have an opinion about former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a large factor in the 2012 nomination fight.

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The AP-GfK Poll was conducted March 20-24, 2014 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,012 adults, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents.

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 News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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Online:

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

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Follow Jennifer Agiesta on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/JennAgiesta