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 shows divide over increasing money for transit

WASHINGTON (AP) — A slight majority of Americans prefer living in a single-family house in the suburbs or a rural area with more land, even if it means driving long distances to get to work or run errands, according to a poll by The Associated Press-GfK.

However, a significant minority, 44 percent, would choose an apartment or smaller house in an urban area that comes with a short drive to work or the opportunity to use public transportation, bike or walk. The split also has a political aspect: Sixty-seven percent of Republicans and 53 percent of independents prefer suburban or rural living, while 55 percent of Democrats prefer urban areas.

The share of Americans who prefer suburban or rural living — 53 percent — is identical to the share who say the government should increase spending to build and improve roads, bridges and interstate highways. About 1 in 3 think current spending levels are about right, while just over 1 in 10 would like to see less money spent on roads.

Many states are struggling just to maintain current spending levels, and Congress has been unable to come up with a long-term plan to pay for highway aid that closes the gap between current spending and federal gas tax revenue.

Americans are more divided over building and improving public transportation such as rail and bus systems. Four in 10 say spending on public transportation should be increased, but just as many say current spending is about right. Only 18 percent say transit spending should be cut.

Contrary to the widely held notion that the millennial generation is flocking to cities and giving up their cars, younger people are not significantly more or less likely than older people to prefer urban living with a shorter commute and access to public transit, the poll found.

Matthew Wild, 33, an airline pilot living in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, said he favors increasing spending on both public transit and highways. The region’s freeways “take a real beating” from the traffic and need to be maintained, he said, but no new lanes should be added.

“We definitely don’t need to be expanding freeways anymore,” Wild said. “We’ve maxed out.”

He cited a highway near his home that was recently widened and now is as full as ever. He does, however, strongly support building more light rail transit locally and high-speed rail between California cities.

Wild said he’d much rather take a convenient local train than fight traffic in his car. He currently takes trains only a few times a year because there are no direct routes from where he lives to the places he wants to go, and indirect routes take too long, he said.

“The big problem with L.A. is that, given the lack of public transportation, sitting in traffic in your own car is still faster than taking public transit,” Wild said.

Jane McEntire, 62, who lives in Cartersville, Georgia, on the northwest fringe of the Atlanta metropolitan area, says traffic is horrible and getting worse.

Even so, she’d rather keep spending on roads and cut spending on public transportation. She says she’s lost confidence in the ability of state and local transportation officials to make improvements and not fritter money away on wasteful projects.

She is particularly incensed that officials used federal transit aid to build a slow-moving streetcar line in downtown Atlanta that is used primarily by tourists.

“I think they look really cute, but as far as usefulness — no,” she said. “When you have federal dollars that are coming into a state that are available and you spend it on these cars in Atlanta that go six or eight blocks back and forth … Why didn’t they take that money and spend it on something to help commuters?”

The AP-GfK Poll of 1,077 adults was conducted online from April 23 to 27 using a sample drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

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

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

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AP-GfK Poll: Many approve Iran deal; Most don’t trust Tehran
WASHINGTON (AP) — Many Americans like the idea of the preliminary deal that would limit Iran’s nuclear program but very few people really believe Tehran will follow through with the agreement.

An Associated Press-GfK poll finds that just 3 percent said they were very confident that Iran would allow inspections of its nuclear facilities, remove plutonium from the country and shut down close to half of its uranium-enriching centrifuges as the preliminary deal says would be required. Nearly seven in 10 people said they were not confident, while 25 percent said they were only moderately confident.

The U.S., Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China are aiming to finalize a deal with Iran by June 30 that puts limits on Iranian programs that could be used to make nuclear arms. In exchange, economic sanctions on Iran would be lifted over time. Tehran denies any interest in such weapons but is negotiating in hopes of relief from billions of dollars in economic sanctions.

The next round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers will start Tuesday in Vienna.

Although more than half of Americans polled say they approve of making the deal, few people — 16 percent — are actually paying close attention to the complex Iran negotiations that have angered Israel and unnerved Gulf nations who are concerned about Tehran’s rising influence and aggressive behavior in the region.

The Senate last week passed legislation that would give Congress time to vote to reject any deal before sanctions are lifted. President Barack Obama would retain the right to veto lawmakers’ disapproval.

Israel’s strong objections to the deal could make a difference to many Americans. If forced to choose, a majority say it’s more important to maintain the U.S. relationship with Israel than to strike a deal with Iran. But respondents are divided along party lines, with nearly six in 10 Democrats saying the Iran deal is more important while seven in 10 Republicans believe ties with Israel are more critical.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the harshest critics of the deal with Iran. Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat, citing hostile Iranian rhetoric toward the Jewish state, Iran’s missile capabilities and its support for violent militant groups.

More broadly, the poll found that Americans are increasingly interested in the U.S. role in world affairs, with 60 percent saying it’s an extremely important issue, up from 52 percent less than five months ago. Slightly more people also approve of Obama’s handling of the issue, increasing from 38 percent in December to 42 percent in the latest poll. Fifty-seven percent disapprove of Obama’s handling of the issue.

But overall, Americans are more likely to trust Republicans than Democrats to handle protecting the country.

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,077 adults was conducted online April 23-27, using a sample drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.

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