WASHINGTON -- With less than four weeks remaining in the race for president, a batch of new polls confirms that Republican nominee Mitt Romney has gained ground since last week's debate, but shows him continuing to lag behind President Barack Obama by narrow margins in some of the key swing states that will decide the election.
The polls also show that Romney has improved his image as a leader and increased enthusiasm among his supporters, while continuing to trail on some of voters' top issues.
Six new statewide polls were released early Thursday morning by two prominent polling partnerships. NBC News, The Wall Street Journal and Marist College reported new surveys of Florida, Ohio and Virginia, and CBS News, The New York Times and Quinnipiac University produced new polls of Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin.
These new surveys are closely watched partly because they probe attitudes beyond the horserace and partly because, unlike many other state-level surveys, they use live interviewers to call voters over both landline and cellular phones. This is a critical factor, given that a third of adults have only wireless service and roughly half of adults receive all or almost all of their calls via cell phone.
Five of the six new polls showed single-digit gains for Romney, but while the margins were mostly close, Obama retained at least a nominal advantage in four of the six.
In Ohio, arguably the most crucial of the battleground states, Marist's poll gave Obama a six percentage point lead (51 to 45 percent). That is slightly better than a CNN/ORC International survey conducted earlier in the week that showed Obama leading by four and significantly better than a series of automated polls showing one-point margins favoring either candidate.
NBC News noted that the new Marist poll featured an 11-point party identification advantage for Democrats, up from a five-point advantage on its last survey, and suggested that early voting may account for the change. "One-in-five respondents (18 percent), said they have already voted," according to the NBC report, "and, of those, almost two-thirds (63 percent) said they voted for Obama."
The HuffPost Pollster tracking model, which combines data from all available polls, both statewide and national, to provide an estimate for each state, shows Obama holding a roughly three percentage point lead in Ohio.
Both Marist and Quinnipiac reported results for Virginia, but they differed on the candidates' standings. Quinnipiac gives Obama a five percentage point lead (51 to 46 percent), while Marist finds a one-point edge for Romney (48 to 47 percent). Three recent automated, recorded voice polls tended to agree more with the Marist result, showing findings ranging from a three-point Romney lead to a three-point deficit.
The HuffPost Pollster tracking model shows a virtual tie in Virginia (Romney 47.3 percent, Obama 47.2 percent, as of this writing).
In Florida, the Marist poll gives Obama a one-point edge (48 to 47 percent). Once again, that result falls in the middle of a range of results reported by other polls this week, although automated polls by Rasmussen Reports and We Ask America gave Romney a narrow edge.
The Pollster tracking model estimate for Florida combines all of this data to give Romney an advantage of just under one percentage point (47.9 to 47.3 percent).
Collectively, the data tell us that despite Romney's recent gains, the contests remain competitive in two critical states.
In Colorado, the Quinnipiac survey gives Romney a one point edge (48 to 47 percent). Once again, the new result falls in the middle of three other recent Colorado surveys ranging from a four-point Obama lead to a four-point deficit. The Pollster tracking model combines to give Romney an advantage of less than one percent (47.5 to 47.0 percent).
The numbers have been better for Obama in Wisconsin, where the new Quinnipiac survey gives him a three-point advantage (50 to 47 percent), a point better than the two-point Obama leads on two recent automated polls by Rasmussen Reports and the Democratic party affiliated firm Public Policy Polling (PPP).
The Pollster tracking model estimate for Wisconsin currently gives Obama a roughly three-point lead (49.3 to 46.1 percent).
The new polls suggest Romney benefited from sharing the debate stage with Obama, leaving it with burnished leadership credentials. But swing state voters still harbor doubts about some of his positions, as well as his ability to relate to them.
Voters in Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin reported increased confidence in Romney's abilities to be commander in chief. The change was slight in Virginia and greatest in Colorado, where the percentage of respondents saying they were very confident in him rose from 24 percent in September to 32 percent this month. About two thirds of voters in all three states said Romney had strong leadership qualities, surpassing Obama's ratings on the issue.
Romney also saw increased enthusiasm among his backers. The percentage of Romney voters saying they strongly favored him rose by 5 points from September in Colorado and by 7 points in Virginia and Wisconsin. The number who strongly supported Obama rose by 1 point in Virginia, but dipped by 5 points from the most recent numbers in Colorado and Wisconsin, while the number of voters who said they chose him because they disliked Romney ticked up in all 3 states.
But the Republican candidate, who has consistently polled behind the president as someone who "cares about the needs and problems of people like you," did little to close that gap, receiving marks only 2 to 3 points higher than he did in September.
Only about a third of voters in the swing state polls said Romney had clearly explained his plans for the next four years, while about half thought Obama had presented a clear vision. Obama retained his edge in being more trusted to help the middle class, preserve Medicare and handle an international crisis.
Voters' views of the economy rose sigificantly in the swing states, at least partially reflecting a new jobs report showing the unemployment level has fallen below 8 percent. The percentage of voters who said the nation's economy is improving grew by 11 points in Colorado, 13 points in Wisconsin and 18 points in Virginia since August.
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