WASHINGTON — Most Americans expect President Barack Obama to win a second term – including more than a quarter of Republican Mitt Romney's supporters, a new Associated Press-GfK poll shows. Still, the race remains a dead heat less than three months out from Election Day.
Overall, registered voters are about evenly split, with 47 percent saying they plan to back Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and 46 percent favoring Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. About one in four voters say they are undecided or could change their minds between now and Nov. 6.
The contours of the race are little changed from June, when an AP-GfK survey showed 47 percent of voters backing Obama and 44 percent siding with Romney, suggesting Romney's decision earlier in August to tap Ryan as his running mate was not the game-changing event he may have desired.
Both campaigns have been competing fiercely for a small sweet spot in the middle of the electorate: Independent voters who say they don't lean toward either party. Romney holds a narrow lead among that group with 41 percent, compared to 30 percent for Obama.
But few think the Romney-Ryan ticket will win in the end.
Asked to predict the race's outcome, 58 percent of adults say they expect Obama to be re-elected, whereas just 32 percent say he will be voted out of office.
Even among those who say they have a great deal of interest in following the campaigns' bitter back and forth, a majority expect Obama to win.
Partisans generally expect their own candidate to win, though Republicans are less sure about Romney than Democrats are about Obama – 83 percent of Democrats say Obama will be re-elected while 57 percent of Republicans think he'll be voted out of office.
Among those Republicans who think Obama may pull out a victory is Catherine Shappard, a 78-year-old from Dallas. Shappard said all of her friends agree that Romney would be a better president, yet she's alarmed to hear even conservative commenters say Obama has a good shot at re-election.
"I think it's close," Shappard said. "A lot closer than I'd like it to be."
The perception that Obama has the advantage could cut both ways. On the one hand, people like to vote for a winner, so if voters think Obama will win, they may be more inclined to cast their lot with him.
On the other hand, it could backfire for Obama and help Romney if it drives down turnout among Democrats. If Obama's supporters think the race is in the bag and their vote isn't necessary, they may stay home.
But if, like Shappard, voters suspect the race is close, they'll be more likely to cast a ballot, said Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University. "It's less important who people think will win than if they think it's a close race," said Murray.
After just over one week on the campaign trail, Romney's running mate remains unknown to about a quarter of voters. Ryan is viewed favorably by 40 percent of registered voters, while 34 percent see him unfavorably.
Romney put the 42-year-old conservative chairman of the House Budget Committee on the ticket Aug. 11. The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Aug. 16-20.
A ready-made opportunity to introduce their ticket to voters on the national stage awaits Romney and Ryan next week in Tampa, Fla., where the pair will formally accept the GOP nomination at the Republican National Convention. Obama and Biden will receive their party's blessing the following week in Charlotte, N.C.
One independent voter, Frank Nugent, a 76-year-old retired sales manager from Pittsburg, Calif., said he always gives both parties a chance to win him over – but not this time.
"Considering what the opposition is like, I can do nothing else but vote for Obama," he said. Part of his dislike for the GOP ticket is due to Ryan, he said, describing Romney's ticket-mate as "further right that the bulk of the Republican Party."
Ivan Tello, 39, from Tampa, is going the other way. A native of Columbia, Tello would have supported Obama in 2008 but wasn't eligible to vote. This election – his first as a naturalized citizen – Tello is leaning toward Romney.
"It's mainly because Obama didn't get the bipartisan support he wanted. That really created a lot of obstacles," Tello said. "I don't think that's going to change."
The frail economy remains the No. 1 issue more than three years after the deep recession officially ended. Nine in 10 call it important for them and half of voters say it is "extremely important," outpacing all other issues tested by at least 10 percentage points.
Registered voters split about evenly between the two candidates on whom they trust more to handle the economy, with 48 percent favoring Romney and 44 percent Obama. They are also about evenly divided on who would do more to create jobs, 47 percent for Romney to 43 percent for Obama. Among independent voters, Romney has a big lead over the president on handling the economy – 46 percent to 27 percent.
The election is all about the economy for Mattise Fraser, a 52-year-old Democrat from Charlotte, where Democrats gather in early September. "We're in a crisis situation now," said Fraser, who said she plans to vote for Obama. She says she's a homemaker – but not by choice. "The economy is crazy. There's no jobs."
Obama's approval rating held steady in the poll at about an even split, with 49 percent saying they approve of the way he's handling his job and another 49 percent saying they disapprove.
The president continues to be seen as more empathetic, and also held a commanding lead among voters as the candidate who better "understands the problems of people like you," 51 percent to 36 percent for Romney.
"For Romney to even say that he has four cars when I don't have one, and I'm struggling, and every time I turn around, something else is costing me more, I just don't feel he has any concept whatsoever," said Suzanne Ayer, a 69-year-old independent from West Deptford, N.J.
Some 50 percent see Obama as a stronger leader than Romney; 41 percent say Romney is stronger. And 35 percent overall say things in the nation are heading in the "right direction," up from 31 percent in June.
The poll involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,006 adults nationwide, including 885 registered voters. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9, while it's 4.1 points for registered voters.
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed this report.