President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney are locked in a very tight race, according to the first series of polls since Rick Santorum dropped out of the GOP nomination process last week and effectively conceded the primary to Romney.
A New York Times/CBS News poll shows Obama and Romney both with 46 percent of the vote, the Pew Research Center gives Obama a 49 to 45 lead, and Gallup showed Romney with a 47 to 45 percent lead. A CNN/ORC survey put Obama ahead 52 to 43.
Here’s a closer look at the polls and what they say about the state of the race:
1. Romney’s challenge is with moderate voters, not his base
In the Pew Poll, about 90 percent of Tea Party members who are Republicans said they would certainly support Romney and not consider backing Obama. This suggests that, despite Romney losing the Tea Party vote in the primaries to Rick Santorum in numerous states, he will get those votes in the general election.
On the other hand, only 65 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans said they would certainly vote for Romney. Similarly, only 66 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans said they would certainly back the GOP candidate.
2. So is Obama’s
The Pew Poll showed Obama down 16 points to Romney among white independent voters, after effectively tying John McCain among that key bloc in 2008.
Independents overall, who narrowly backed Obama in 2008, now favor Romney. (Obama leads in the Pew poll overall because more people self-identify as Democrats than Republicans; Romney will need a substantial lead among independents to win the election)
3. Obama is still very strong among blacks, Latinos and women
The president’s advantage among blacks (a 93-point lead over Romney), Latinos (40 points), voters ages 18-29 (28 points) and women (13 points) mirror 2008, according to Pew.
Those advantages are why Romney is trying to highlight the role of his wife Ann, in an attempt to appeal to women. He is also publicly discussing some kind of conservative “Dream Act” to help with Latinos.
What this data doesn’t predict is turnout. In 2008, Obama benefited from increased turnout, particularly among African-Americans, who comprised a larger share (11 percent in 2004 compared to 13 percent in 2008) of the electorate.
In 2012, it’s unlikely large numbers of voters under 30, Latinos or blacks will shift to Romney, who has done little as to distinguish himself from previous Republican candidates. But some potential Obama voters may choose to stay home, either because the historical importance is not the same (blacks) or they are frustrated by the economy and Obama’s inability to reduce partisanship in Washington as he promised (voters who are ages 18-29).
4. About a fifth of the electorate isn’t totally sure who they will vote for
According to Pew, about 40 percent of voters are certain they will back Obama, and another 40 percent will back Romney. That will leave about 20 percent of voters as a potential swing group. In truth, this group may be even smaller, as Pew found only 7 percent of voters were truly undecided. But with polls showing such a tight race, those voters could be decisive.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr