CHICAGO (MCT) — With national surveys showing the contest between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney tightening, a new Chicago 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.
While the president is racking up huge support in Chicago and winning the suburbs, Romney holds a lead Downstate. That’s where three hard-fought congressional races are playing out, indicating Obama’s coattail effect may be limited despite a map 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.
Black 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.
That’s why Mohammad Khan, a computer analyst from Des Plaines, said he’s leaning toward voting for Obama.
Khan, 40, said he thinks Obama cares about middle-class families, a big issue for him with three young children. The hesitation, Khan said, is that his family is financially worse off now than it was in 2008.
“Things are more expensive across the board, and instead of getting ahead financially, I’m getting behind,” said Khan, a poll respondent. “I was very much an Obama supporter when he came in, but I find myself thinking twice now.”
Retired businessman Elmer Kuech said Romney’s philosophy on small-business growth is more aligned with his views.
“I’ve seen this country go through recessions in my 74 years, and none has been so anemic,” said Kuech, a poll respondent of Homewood. “I guess we didn’t read the fine print on the ‘hope and change’ promised in the last election.”
As the nation prepares for Thursday’s vice presidential debate, the poll found Democratic Vice President Joe Biden viewed favorably by 43 percent of Illinois voters compared with 35 percent with an unfavorable view. Opinions of Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP running mate from Janesville, Wis., were split: 34 percent had a favorable opinion and 33 percent an unfavorable viewpoint.
While the presidential result in Illinois is fairly certain, the question of how big Obama’s coattails will be remains unclear. Democrats drew the state’s new congressional map with an eye toward picking up four or five seats toward the party’s goal of a net gain of 25 to retake the House.
The poll asked a generic congressional support question. In Chicago and suburban Cook County, large majorities of voters said they would vote for an unspecified Democratic candidate for Congress. Even in the Republican-rich collar counties, 48 percent of voters said they’d side with a Democrat compared with 41 percent for a GOP contender.
That dynamic could help Democrats in three suburban contests: the northwest and west suburban 8th District, where Democrat Tammy Duckworth is challenging freshman Republican Rep. Joe Walsh, the north suburban 10th District where Democrat Brad Schneider is pitted against freshman GOP Rep. Robert Dold, and the far west and southwest suburban 11th District, where former Democratic Rep. Bill Foster is running against veteran Republican Rep. Judy Biggert. Chicago TV is full of millions of dollars in attack ads as interest groups try to sway voters.
But there also are three hard-fought congressional contests Downstate. Outside the Chicago region, 48 percent of voters said they’d side with a generic Republican, compared with 42 percent who preferred a Democrat. That lay of the land could help Republicans retain two seats and pick up a third now held by a retiring Democrat.
(Tribune reporter Bridget Doyle contributed.)