WASHINGTON -- Voters in the nation's key battlegrounds have become as enthusiastic and engaged in the 2012 presidential election as they were in the historic contest four years ago, and they finally have made up their minds about President Obama and Mitt Romney.
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It's a tie: 48%-48%.
The even split among likely voters in the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of Swing States reflects gains in the campaign's final weeks by Obama, who has closed a 4-percentage-point deficit from early October in the wake of a disappointing first presidential debate. Most of the interviews were completed before Hurricane Sandy hit, and the president's disaster response may have bolstered his standing a bit since then.
The 11th and final Swing States Poll, a USA TODAY series that began a year ago, finds voters increasingly excited about the election and settled in their support. They say they have a clear idea what each candidate would do if elected - though that has caused some alarm. Most express concern that a President Romney would return to failed GOP policies and that a re-elected Obama would rely too much on Big Government.
As Election Day approaches, Obama leads 50%-46% among registered voters. That's the first time since Romney clinched the Republican nomination last spring that either candidate has reached the 50% threshold and the biggest margin during that time.
The poll was taken in the dozen battlegrounds most likely to determine the outcome in the Electoral College: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. In a sign of their importance, one or both of the presidential candidates held events during the campaign's final days in nine of those 12 states - and neither stumped anywhere else.
In polls of individual states, aggregated by RealClearPolitics.com, Obama has an edge in nine battlegrounds, including a narrow 2.8-point lead in crucial Ohio. Romney leads in two, Florida and North Carolina, and Virginia is essentially even. Combined national polls put Obama at 47.5%, Romney at 47.3%.
Senior strategists in both campaigns saw encouraging signs in the USA TODAY findings.
Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, said the president has gained momentum and now leads narrowly in statewide polls in most battlegrounds because a stark economic choice has "crystallized" for voters, especially in the three debates. "People understand that this president is on their side," he said in an interview. "People know he's going to fight for them every single day."
Neil Newhouse, Romney's pollster, notes the closeness of the contest. "The bottom line is, we're looking at this as a dead heat, a jump-ball kind of race that's tied right now, and we've got an intensity advantage. That kind of enthusiasm advantage translates into a turnout advantage on Election Day," he said in an interview. "The election now comes down to turnout, to intensity, to ground game."
Obama has improved his standing in the past few weeks by regaining support among women in the swing states. The gender gap - that is, the disparity between the way men and women vote - stands at historically high levels after narrowing in the early October. Obama now leads among women by 16 points; Romney leads among men by 10.
Romney leads among white men by a yawning 27 points; the two candidates divide white women evenly. The former Massachusetts governor leads among independent voters by a single point.
'Sending a message'
Allison Fitzwater, 42, of Viroqua, Wis., voted for Obama four years ago and, despite some disappointments, was determined to support him again from the opening days of the campaign. "I like the changes I've seen so far and I want them to continue," the high-school science teacher, who was among those polled, said in a follow-up interview.
Scott Cunningham, 28, a chemist from Sparks, Nev., decided in just the past week or two to cast his vote for Romney and against the president.
"It has everything to do with sending a message that, like any other job, if you get hired to do a four-year job or a six-month contract, if you're not doing a good job at the end of that period, you're going away," he said. "In the beginning (Obama's) message was, 'Give me a shot, coach; put me in; I can play.' Well, you got your chance. You can't say, 'I need a little more time.'"
Obama has lost some luster over the past four years - perhaps no surprise after a tenure launched during an economic crisis.
He won all 12 of the swing states in 2008, carrying 53.9% of their combined vote over Republican John McCain. This time, given the divide between solidly Republican and solidly Democratic states elsewhere, he needs to claim close to half of their 151 electoral votes to amass the 270-vote total that will give him four more years in the White House.
Registered voters are less likely to identify themselves as Democrats now than they were four years ago. In the Swing States survey, 37% call themselves Democrats, down 4 points from 2008; 29% call themselves Republicans, up 3 points. The percentage of independents is 34% now, 32% then.
At the end of the 2008 campaign, 63% of registered voters in the battlegrounds had a favorable impression of Obama; now 55% do. The percentage who see him as a strong leader has declined 11 points, to 53%. Those who say he understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives has dropped 14 points, to 60%.
Romney continues to hold an advantage on the economy, which Americans identify as the most important issue this year by far. Voters prefer him over Obama in handling the economy by 3 points and in handling the federal budget deficit by 10 points. The former Massachusetts governor is seen as a stronger leader and the candidate who could do a better job managing the federal government.
"I just feel like the economy will recover a bit faster if he were to become president," says Raymond Perez, 33, a registered nurse from Miami who plans to vote for the Republican.
In what is one of this year's enduring puzzles, however, Romney has struggled to pull decisively ahead with voters despite their preference for him on their most important issue - perhaps because he hasn't convinced many of them that he understands their lives and will protect their interests.
"He just doesn't really have a clue about how others live," Fitzwater says, mentioning the secretly recorded video in which Romney spoke dismissively of the 47% of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes. "He seems to think that people with money need to keep their money, while I see people with money having a responsibility to help those who aren't as well off as they are."
Obama is favored in handling everything except the economy and the deficit - on foreign affairs, national security, energy, health care and taxes. And the president continues to be viewed as more empathetic than Romney. Six in 10 say Obama "understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives." Just 45% say that of Romney.
How are you feeling?
A year ago, voters in the battlegrounds weren't particularly excited about this presidential race.
In the first Swing States Poll, in October 2011, fewer than half said they were enthusiastic about the election. That number rose only to 51% in late January, during the heat of the battle for the Republican nomination. That's 10 points lower than at that point in 2008, when there were nomination fights in both parties.
The percentage of voters who said they had given "quite a lot" of thought to the election was significantly lower at the beginning of the year as well.
Now, though, Americans are as engaged in the election as they were in the groundbreaking contest four years ago, which featured the first African-American candidate for president on the Democratic ticket and Sarah Palin for vice president on the GOP side. Eighty-six percent of registered voters say they have given quite a lot of thought to the election, just about the same percentage who said that at the end of the campaigns in 2008 and 2004. It's considerably higher than the number who felt that way in 2000 and 1996.
Increased voter interest generally could signal another high-turnout election.
The increase in enthusiasm is particularly pronounced among women, especially middle-aged and senior women. The proportion of women who say they are extremely enthusiastic has more than doubled in the past year; it's nearly tripled among those 50 and older.
Overall, Republicans continue to have an enthusiasm advantage, though it has narrowed in the past year. In October 2011, a third of Republican voters were extremely enthusiastic about the presidential election, more than double the number of Democrats who felt that way. Now, 51% of Republicans and 44% of Democrats say they're excited about it.
Ann Freund, 47, a homemaker from Hudson, Ohio, who supports Obama, acknowledges his campaign is less electrifying this time than it was four years ago.
"As a country, we've all been through some rough times, so it's hard to generate that same enthusiasm," she says. "It's like when you get married, and four years later, the stars aren't in your eyes anymore. You lost your job; you had a baby; you had to move across the country or whatever. You have those bumps in the road with your life together. And with President Obama, right off the bat we had tons of (trouble)."
When Romney clinched the Republican nomination last spring, there were a lot of undecided voters for the two candidates to battle for: Nearly a third said they hadn't made up their minds. Now, fewer than one in 10 say it's possible they'll change their minds. In fact, 22% already have cast ballots in early or absentee voting; they broke narrowly for Romney.
What has influenced voters' decisions?
More than six in 10 cite the debates, and half say editorials or commentary mattered. More than a third were affected by the political conventions. But to the skepticism of experts, voters downplayed the power of all those campaign ads. Fewer than one in four say the TV spots affected their vote.
"Seeing the debates kind of solidified my decision," says Lori Cook, 49, a human-resources manager from Roanoke, Va., who was among those surveyed. "After seeing the debates, I felt more comfortable with my decision." She is backing Romney, though she sounds less than thrilled by her options. "Well, there's only the two to choose from," she notes.
The Swing States Poll of 1,183 registered voters, including 1,077 likely voters, was taken Oct. 27-31 by landline and cellphone. The national survey of 1,447 registered voters was taken Nov. 1-2 for comparison purposes. Each has an error margin of +/-4 points. The head-to-head matchup is based on interviews with 2,192 registered voters and 1,984 likely voters in the Swing States Poll and the Gallup daily poll taken in those 12 states from Oct. 22-28. It has a margin of error of +/-3 points.
Swing states residents describe being deluged by campaign ads on TV and courted by campaign workers on the phone and at the front door. Freund has gotten robo-calls from Mitt Romney and from Ann Romney. Her 12-year-old son, Alex, managed to shake hands with former president Bill Clinton at a rally Thursday.
Fifty percent of voters in the battlegrounds say the Romney campaign has contacted them by e-mail, phone, mail or in person; 49% say they've heard from the Obama campaign. (In contrast, just a third of Americans nationwide say they've had personal contact from each of the campaigns.)
The impact of all that attention isn't always positive.
Carol Mack, 63, is principal of the Matthew Thorton Elementary School in Londonderry, N.H., where the students made voting booths from refrigerator boxes and held a mock election Friday.
"I noticed that the children were quoting sound bites from the commercials," Mack said with dismay. "One child says to me, 'You should vote for Romney; Obama is destroying the country!'"
Their ballots will be counted Monday.
A 'clear idea' - and some alarm
About two-thirds of registered voters say they have a clear idea of what each candidate would do in office over the next four years. That knowledge hasn't always eased their minds.
A 53% majority - including about one in four of his supporters - say they are concerned that Romney in office would adopt policies "that are too similar to what former president George W. Bush pursued."
And 64% of those surveyed - including almost four in 10 of his supporters - say they are concerned that a re-elected Obama would rely too much on the federal government to solve the country's problems.
In follow-up interviews, voters of all stripes express concerns about the direction of the country and the ability of Washington to fix the country's woes.
Judy Sessoms, 67, an Obama supporter from Bladen County, N.C., hopes there will be less of the sharp partisanship that has divided Washington. "I hope it'll change with the election," she says, but she worries it won't. "Some people seem to be very entrenched in their desire to just continue to say 'no'" to the other side, she says.
"This is just an incredibly crucial election," says Jeffrey Crum, 47, of State College, Pa. "I feel like there's more at stake this time than usual," agrees Cook, who supports Romney in part because he was able to work across party lines as governor of Democratic-dominated Massachusetts. "There's a lot of gridlock in Congress, and it's too bad that there can't be more partisan efforts made on a lot of things."
When voters in the swing states were asked in an open-ended question to describe the long campaign in a word or two, they divided about evenly between positive words ("intense," "good") and negative ones ("nasty," "lies").
The most frequent response was "interesting," and the second was "important."