03/22/2012 11:34 am ET Updated May 22, 2012

New PurplePoll: Obama Builds a Lead Among Independents

Our latest Purple Poll shows President Obama holding a steady lead against Romney and a growing advantage over Santorum. At the same time, Obama faces a fickle electorate that remains unhappy with the direction of the country.

As Santorum's popularity falls among Purple State voters, Romney's image appears to be stabilizing.

We also take a closer look at the political ramifications of gas prices, and a gender gap -- which has the potential to hurt Republicans in Purple States.

President Obama continues to lead in the Purple States, gaining substantial traction against Santorum over the last month.

President Obama maintains a steady advantage against both Republican challengers in the key swing states that will determine the 2012 general election. He currently leads Romney by four points (48 percent to 44 percent) and holds a majority against Rick Santorum (50 percent to 42 percent). His performance against Romney has gradually increased since the PurplePoll began tracking in September 2011.

President Obama is making strong inroads among independents. As recently as last month, the president was trailing a Republican challenger among independent voters (Santorum 44 percent, Obama 42 percent). He leads Romney by eight points (48 percent to 40 percent) and Santorum by 11 (50 percent to 39 percent) among independents in swing states.

These improvements appear to be fueled by a slowly improving political climate for the incumbent. President Obama's approval rating continues to improve, and is now close to even at 46 percent approve to 50 percent disapprove. This represents a five-point improvement over the last six months, compared to a three-point decline in disapproval.

At the same time, a majority of voters in swing states still believe the nation is seriously off on the wrong track (57 percent), including 59 percent of independents. While this measure tends to be a "lagging indicator" of an improving political environment, it remains quite low for a Presidential incumbent seeking re-election.

Santorum's image has taken a beating over the last month, while Romney appears to have stabilized his image overall and among independents.

Following increased exposure on the campaign trail and in the news since our last survey, Rick Santorum's popularity has faded substantially. In February, Purple State voters had a five-point net unfavorable view of him (38 percent to 43 percent). Today, a majority (53 percent) has an unfavorable view compared to 31 percent that have a favorable view -- a net negative change of 17 points. Independents have an even worse opinion of Santorum: 57 percent have an unfavorable view (26 percent favorable).

Mitt Romney's image has improved over the last month: Twenty nine percent now have a favorable view, up from 27 percent in our last poll. Those with an unfavorable view ticked down by a point to 56 percent. While these numbers remain problematic, they could signal that he has reached a low point from which he will turn around as the primary season winds down.

Women are a growing challenge for the GOP.

Both Romney and Santorum face a significant gender gap in these critical Purple States. Against Romney, President Obama performs a net 10 points better among women (50 percent to 41 percent) than men (46 percent to 47 percent). In a head-to-head against Rick Santorum, the same 11-point net gap exists (52 percent to 39 percent among women, 47 percent to 45 percent among men).

By a 16-point margin, Purple State voters believe that the Democratic Party cares more about issues that are important to women (49 percent to 33 percent). As expected, the margin is slightly higher among women (20 points, 51 percent to 31 percent), but it is also robust among men (12 points, 48 percent to 36 percent). Strikingly, that gap grows to 27 points (51 percent to 24 percent) among independent voters.

Gas prices are rising, but at this early stage President Obama's argument carries the day by a narrow margin.

Voters have strong reservations about how President Obama has handled gas prices. A recent Washington Post poll found that 65 percent disapproved of the job he is doing with "the situation with gas prices" (26 percent approve).

We framed the issue slightly differently. We asked Purple State voters whether they would blame President Obama if gas prices continued to go up, or if they would not blame him because there isn't much any president can do.

Under this question approach, President Obama fares better, though by a small margin: A majority (50 percent) would not blame President Obama, while a strong minority (45 percent) would blame him. There is a large education gap on this question: College educated voters in Purple States are more likely to let President Obama slide on the issue (55 percent to 42 percent), while those without a college degree say they will blame him by a two-point margin (46 percent to 48 percent).

Gas prices and energy are complex issues, and this is just one of many ways to approach the issue. At this point, though, President Obama's message on gas prices appears to be resonating with Purple State voters.