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First Thoughts: Steady as she goes

Despite another eventful month, Obama vs. Romney remains steady, per new NBC/WSJ poll… Obama 47%, Romney 44%... Both Obama and Romney struggled in June… Want to see the power of negative TV ads? Check out Romney’s standing in the swing states… A largely undefined Romney… And the NBC/WSJ poll plays the word association game… More polls are on the way! NBC/WSJ/Telemundo Latino oversample comes out later this afternoon, and we’ll unveil new NBC-Marist state polls tomorrow morning… Pay attention to the natural disasters in CO and FL… Hatch and Rangel cruise to victory… And problems with the “Fast and Furious” story?

President Barack Obama speaks at Obama Victory Fund concert in Miami, Florida, on June 26, 2012.Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images

*** Steady as she goes: Remember when wrote earlier this week that, despite everything that has happened in the past month, the presidential contest has remained remarkably stable? Well, the new numbers from our new NBC/WSJ poll back up that assertion. After that disappointing May jobs report, the Wisconsin recall, more uncertainty in Europe, and that recent immigration announcement, President Obama and Mitt Romney are still locked in a tight contest among registered voters, with Obama at 47% and Romney at 44%. That's essentially unchanged from May, when the margin was four points, 47%-43%. But despite the stability on the surface, there are some fascinating things going on when you look inside the numbers. Obama is ahead among African Americans (92%-1%), women (52%-39%), Latinos (66-26%), voters ages 18-29 (52%-35%) and independents (40%-36%). Romney leads among Tea Party supporters (94%-1%), whites (53%-38%), white independents (46-32%), white women (50-41%) and men (48%-43%). And the two are running even among seniors, Midwest residents, and high-interest voters.

*** Both Obama and Romney struggled in June: So how do we explain this stability? The other poll results suggest that BOTH Obama and Romney have struggled in the past month. For Obama, those disapproving of his handling of the economy rose a point to 53%; those believing the country is on the wrong track increased three points to 61%; and his overall approval rating is 47% approve/48% disapprove -- the first time it has been upside down this year. Bottom line: There is plenty of economic pessimism, and that isn't good news for the incumbent president. In the poll, 49% say what they have seen, read, and heard about the country’s economy has made them less pessimistic, versus 43% who are more optimistic. (However, in May, it was 53% less pessimistic/42% more optimistic.)

*** Want to see the power of negative TV ads? But the NBC/WSJ poll also finds that Romney had a pretty rough month, too, especially in the swing states where all the advertising is going on. Among the voters in our poll living in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, Obama’s lead over Romney increases to 50%-42%. Also in these swing states, Romney’s favorability numbers have dropped: A month ago, Romney’s fav/unfav score stood at 34%/38% nationally and 36%-36% in these 12 swing states. But in this latest survey, his national fav/unfav score is 33%-39% (that 39% unfav is tied with his all-time high) and 30%-41% in the swing states.  What’s more, the poll shows that attitudes about Romney’s business background also are more unfavorable in these battlegrounds. Among swing-state respondents, 18% say what they’ve seen and heard about Romney’s business record gives them a more POSITIVE opinion about the Republican candidate, versus 33% who say it’s more NEGATIVE. That’s compared to the national 23%-to-28% margin on this question. The obvious conclusion here is that the negative TV ads pummeling Romney in the battleground states -- like here and here and here -- are having an impact.

*** An undefined Romney: Why could the negative TV ads have a bigger impact -- at least for now -- on Romney than Obama? Here’s one explanation: Romney remains largely undefined, according to our poll. Although it shows that only 6% of respondents don’t know who Romney is, just 20% say they “know a lot” about him, versus 43% who say the same about Obama. (To be sure, Romney’s percentage here is comparable to Obama’s when he was running for president at this same point in 2008.) In addition, a majority of Romney supporters – 58% – say their vote is more AGAINST Obama than FOR Romney. That’s compared to a whopping 72% of Obama supporters who say their vote is more FOR Obama than AGAINST Romney. “[Romney’s] a known name but an unknown person,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D). “They just haven’t related to him.”

*** The word association game: Our NBC/WSJ pollsters also did something else that’s unique to our survey: They asked respondents to say the first thing that came to their mind when thinking about the two presidential candidates. For Romney, 43% of the answers were negative. The top examples: wealthy/favor the wealthy (12%), bad/disaster (7%), out of touch (7%) and women’s rights/abortion stance (5%). By contrast, 40% of the answers about him were positive, such as good businessman (10%), change (10%), conservative/for smaller government (7%) and improve economy (5%). For Obama, 52% of the open-ended answers for him were negative: economy (15%), lack of experience/incompetent (9%), Obamacare (8%), high unemployment (6%) and broken promises (6%). Another 44% of the answers were positive: good leader/doing good job (10%), for the people (6%), health-care reform (5%) and fair/honest (5%). Be sure to check out the word clouds of these responses at the end of this article.

*** Other poll odds and ends: George W. Bush’s fav/unfav in the poll is 36%-45% (which isn’t too far off Romney’s 33%-39%)… Bain Capital’s fav/unfav is 8%-20%, which is better than Solyndra’s, 2%-24%... And 67% correctly identified Romney’s Mormon faith, but only 43% correctly identified Obama’s (versus 8% who ID’ed him as a Muslim and 1% who I.D’ed Obama as a Mormon). 

*** More polls are on the way! By the way, these aren't the only other poll numbers you'll see from us in the next 24 hours. Later today, we'll unveil our NBC/WSJ/Telemundo oversample of Latino respondents to get a better look at this pivotal demographic group, especially when it comes to immigration. And tomorrow morning, we'll release new NBC-Marist polls of Michigan, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. And speaking of state polls, Quinnipiac shows Obama leading Romney in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

*** Pay attention to what’s going on in Colorado and Florida: A quick note about the natural disasters currently taking place in Colorado and Florida, which are two battleground states: Don’t lose sight of them. These things can spiral quickly and have political repercussions.

*** On the trail: Romney raises money in New York City and Washington, DC before holding a campaign event in Sterling, VA at 5:00 pm ET… Biden campaigns in Dubuque, IA at 11:00 am ET… And NBC’s Carrie Dann confirms an AP report that Obama will embark on a bus tour through Pennsylvania and Ohio July 5-6.

*** Hatch and Rangel cruise to victory: GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch and Dem Rep. Charlie Rangel both won their primaries last night. The Washington Post: “Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and Rep. Charles B. Rangel, two longtime lawmakers who saw their careers imperiled by the shifting political winds, cruised to primary victories Tuesday night despite stiff challenges from younger upstarts. Hatch, a conservative Utah Republican, and Rangel, a liberal New York Democrat, have nearly eight decades of incumbency between them. But both lawmakers faced their toughest primary challenges ever this year, becoming the latest examples of longtime politicians struggling to adjust to a new political reality.” But while Hatch and Rangel won, another incumbent -- Oklahoma Rep. John Sullivan -- lost his GOP primary last night.

*** Problems with the “Fast and Furious” story? And with the House’s contempt vote against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder set for tomorrow (same day as the SCOTUS decision on health care), an investigation by Fortune magazine reveals that the ATF never intentionally allowed the “Fast and Furious” guns to fall in the hands of a Mexican cartel, and it questions the credibility of the original whistleblower. “Nobody disputes that suspected straw purchasers under surveillance by the ATF repeatedly bought guns that eventually fell into criminal hands. Issa and others charge that the ATF intentionally allowed guns to walk as an operational tactic. But five law-enforcement agents directly involved in Fast and Furious tell Fortune that the ATF had no such tactic. They insist they never purposefully allowed guns to be illegally trafficked. Just the opposite: They say they seized weapons whenever they could but were hamstrung by prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn. Indeed, a six-month Fortune investigation reveals that the public case alleging that Voth and his colleagues walked guns is replete with distortions, errors, partial truths, and even some outright lies.”

Countdown to GOP convention: 61 days
Countdown to Dem convention: 68 days
Countdown to Election Day: 132 days

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