By Amy Gardner and Laura Vozzella
The Washington Post
President Obama is clinging to a slender, four-point lead over Republican Mitt Romney in Virginia, as both sides ramp up already aggressive campaigns in the crucial battleground state, according to a new Washington Post poll.
Obama outpolled Romney, 51 to 47 percent, among likely Virginia voters, although he lost the clearer 52-to-44 percent advantage he held in mid-September.
Unlike in national polls, Obama still has an edge when Virginia voters are asked who better understands their financial problems, and he has not fallen behind a surging Romney on the question of who would better handle the national economy. Nor has Obama lost significant ground among self-identified independents in Virginia, as he has nationally.
The results underscore the importance of swing states like Virginia, with its 13 electoral votes, as both campaigns seek to secure a path to the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
Perhaps the poll’s most striking finding is how many voters the two campaigns have contacted in Virginia this fall. A staggering 44 percent of likely voters polled say they’ve been contacted by the Obama campaign, 41 percent say the same of Romney’s. More than one in four of have heard from both campaigns.
Both campaigns have increased efforts to reach voters since last month, although fewer voters say they have been contacted by Obama’s team this time than four years ago. Romney’s organization, meanwhile, is outperforming Sen. John McCain’s in 2008.
In addition, as if to confirm both sides’ emphasis on early voting, 4 percent of likely voters say they have already voted by absentee ballot. An additional 41 percent say they are likely to do so, which would be a sharp jump from four years ago.
The numbers reflect the intensity of the two campaigns in Virginia. Obama has attended 19 political events in the state this year, including a rally in Richmond last week and another planned for Monday in Prince William County. Romney has attended 20 political events in the state since winning the Republican nomination, and he would have attended a 21st Sunday had it not been canceled in advance of Hurricane Sandy.
Virginia, like Ohio and Florida, is particularly critical for Romney, whose path to the White House would be difficult without the state’s electoral votes.
Both candidates see a path to victory in Virginia.
Obama is counting heavily on his advantages among African American, Latino and female voters, and on his support in Washington’s inner suburbs and the urban centers of Richmond and Hampton Roads.
Romney, meanwhile, hopes to gin up big turnouts in Republican-leaning places such as Chesterfield, near Richmond, and Virginia Beach, as well as in conservative, coal-friendly strongholds in southwest Virginia. The new polling numbers suggest that Romney might be succeeding; he leads overwhelmingly (60 percent to 39 percent) in the central and western regions of the state, much improved from a modest seven-point advantage in mid-September.
“From an economic standpoint, I think the national debt is the key issue,” said Donald Lewis of Salem, in southwest Virginia.
Lewis, a retired middle manager from Norfolk Southern Railway, said he will vote for Romney because he thinks the Republican would do a better job of straightening out the nation’s finances. “We have to concentrate on getting our budget balanced and our debt under control before it turns into riots like in Europe,” he said.
The nation’s fiscal health is one of the few subjects on which Romney holds an advantage over Obama in Virginia.
In Virginia, unlike in national polls, the Republican does not have a clear lead on the economy, and he continues to trail on other issues. Romney trails by 10 points on the question of who would better manage the future of Medicare; by 13 points on who better understands the economic problems of Americans; and by 12 points on who is better equipped to manage international affairs.
Obama also enjoys a wide lead (55 percent to 35 percent) on the question of social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Statewide, Romney and Obama are running nearly even on whom voters trust more to handle military spending, with the Republican neutralizing and advantage since September. Romney has taken a 13-point lead on the issue in Washington’s outer suburbs, including Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William counties. In the inner suburbs, Obama continues to hold a wide lead.
Romney is also winning among military veterans and service members on active duty. His lead, 59 percent to 38 percent, is a dramatic improvement from September, when the split was 51 percent to 47 percent.
Both campaigns are at least as focused on motivating partisans as persuading swing voters. Just over half of likely independent voters in the inner Washington suburbs, for instance, have been contacted by either campaign, compared with more than six in 10 of those who identify with a particular party.
Contrary to the most recent national numbers, in Virginia, Obama has an advantage on enthusiasm: 70 percent of his backers are “very enthusiastic” about his candidacy in the new poll, compared with 56 percent of those who back Romney.
Obama supporters appear to need more of a nudge than Republicans do. Ninety percent of Democrats contacted by Obama are “absolutely certain” they’ll vote, compared with 82 percent who haven’t been contacted, while among Republicans, over nine in 10 say they’re certain to vote regardless of whether they’ve been contacted.
More broadly, the poll shows that the 2012 electorate in Virginia is shaping up as similar, though slightly less Democratic, than the electorate i 2008.
The poll was conducted among a random sample of 1,504 adults from Oct. 22 through Oct. 26 on conventional and cellular phones. Among the sample of 1,228 likely voters, the poll carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.