With national surveys showing the contest between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney tightening, a new Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows the home-state president retains a comfortable advantage in Illinois even though the economy has drained some of the enthusiasm.
Obama scored 55 percent support to 36 percent for Romney, virtually identical to a similar poll in February before Romney had clinched the nomination. So far, Obama is short of replicating his victory margin of four years ago, when he accepted the presidency at a huge Grant Park rally after claiming 62 percent of the Illinois vote.
Democrats drew to wipe out Republican gains of 2010.
The post-Great Recession economy has been the focus of the presidential campaign, and the poll found slightly more Illinois voters approve of Obama's overall job performance than they do his handling of the economy. Downstate has been hit hard, and a majority of voters there disapprove of Obama's efforts to spark a recovery. More think Romney would do a better job fixing the economy.
At the same time, independent voters statewide are almost equally split between which of the two candidates would fare better on the economy. The president did well with this important voting bloc in the 2008 election.
This time out, Republicans are asking the seminal question of whether families are better off now than they were four years ago. In Illinois, 28 percent of voters said they were better off and the same number said they were worse off. About 4 in 10 said they were about the same. Those doing better or about the same favored Obama's re-election, but those worse off economically backed Romney.
The latest survey of 700 voters, which has an error margin of 3.7 percentage points, was conducted Oct. 4-8. Questioning began one day after the first presidential debate. A Romney win in that campaign event served as the catalyst for the Republican closing the gap on Obama in various national polls, including in key swing states. Longer-term tracking polls for the presidential race have raised questions whether Romney's post-debate bounce was short-lived.
In Illinois, a deeper look into the poll numbers shows areas of unease — perhaps not enough to trouble Obama's chances of taking the state's 20 electoral votes on Nov. 6, but of larger concern to Democrats who had hopes of reversing the 11-8 Republican advantage in the state's congressional delegation.
The survey found Obama leading 79 percent to 12 percent over Romney in Chicago, with narrower advantages of 57 percent to 34 percent in suburban Cook County and 54 percent to 41 percent in the collar counties. Among voters in the state's remaining 96 counties, Romney led Obama 46 percent to 41 percent.
Romney has made gains among white voters this year. In February, whites favored Obama over Romney 48-41. The latest survey shows that group almost evenly split — 46 percent for the former Massachusetts governor and 45 percent for the president.
Part of that trend can be attributed to Obama's slipping support among white suburban women. The voting group, which is considered politically moderate, favored Obama 63 percent to 30 percent eight months ago. Now Obama's backing has fallen to 50 percent, with 43 percent backing Romney.
African-American support for the nation's first black president remained strong at 95 percent.
The president's job approval remained almost unshaken from February. A majority of statewide voters — 53 percent — approve of Obama's handling of the presidency, while 39 percent disapprove.
Digging deeper, however, Obama's job approval rating lagged among Downstate, white and independent voters. Outside the Chicago region, 51 percent disapproved and 40 percent approved. Among whites, 48 percent disapproved compared with 43 percent who approved. Independent voters who decide close elections were split — 44 percent approved and 43 percent disapproved.
The president's numbers dip in those same demographic groups when it comes to Obama's handling of jobs and the economy. Statewide, 51 percent of voters approved and 41 percent disapproved. But a majority of Downstate voters — 53 percent — disapproved, as did 51 percent of white voters. Independents clocked in at a 47 percent disapproval rate, with 41 percent approving.
Still, Obama's statewide economic approval rating is better than two years ago, when a September 2010 survey showed 47 percent disapproved while only 42 percent approved.
When it comes to how Obama is viewed in his home state, 55 percent of voters said they have a favorable perception of the president compared with 35 percent who look at him unfavorably. In contrast, just 35 percent of Illinois voters viewed Romney favorably, while 49 percent have an unfavorable view.
Obama supporters are more intense in their support. The poll found 86 percent of Obama backers say they are voting for the president and only 12 percent said they are voting against Romney. In contrast, only 64 percent of Romney voters said they are voting for him, while 33 percent >said they are voting against Obama.
The poll also included a gut-check question asking respondents which candidate cares more about "people like you." On that score, 56 percent sided with Obama while only 29 percent cited Romney. That identification with Obama crossed all geographic, racial and gender lines, perhaps reflecting the success of the president's campaign in trying to paint Romney as too wealthy and out of touch to engage the middle class.