A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll makes it clear: Voters give Mitt Romney an edge over President Barack Obama on ideas for lifting the struggling American economy.
But how important is that edge? If you look at economic conditions in electoral battleground states, perhaps not as important as the national picture would suggest.
The NBC/WSJ survey shows the Democratic incumbent with some familiar advantages. By 16 points, voters rate Obama more highly for "looking out for the middle class." By 10 points, they give him the edge on "being a good commander-in-chief" - an unusually strong showing for a Democrat that Romney aims to cut into with a trip to Israel, Poland and Britain this week.
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At the same time, slow growth and persistently high unemployment has helped the Republican challenger, a former financial industry executive, gain a notable edge on the most important issue in the campaign. By 7 points, voters rate Romney more highly for "having good ideas for how to improve the economy."
Yet the fact that some of the swing states in the election are faring better economically may blunt that edge. For example, the unemployment rates in Iowa and New Hampshire are both 3 full points below the 8.2 percent national rate; Obama leads in both states by 1 and 5 percentage points, respectively, according to an average of recent polls by realclearpolitics.com.
In the pivotal Midwest, Ohio's 7.2 percent unemployment rate is also below the national average. Obama leads there by 4 points. No Republican nominee has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio.
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Bleaker conditions in a smaller number of swing states help Romney. In Democratic-leaning Michigan, for instance, where unemployment stands at 8.6 percent, Romney remains within 2 points of the incumbent. And Romney leads slightly in North Carolina, whose 9.4 percent unemployment rate is significantly above the national average.
The NBC/WSJ poll, which surveyed 1,000 people between July 18 and 22, had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
The campaign's next three months will test the influence of local conditions as compared to the national mood in how undecided voters make up their minds. Pollsters disagree on the relative importance of each factor.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin noted that the partisan leanings of most voters drive their decisions regardless of economic circumstances at any particular moment. Still, he added, "Obama does better with independents in states where economic conditions are better and people are more likely to see the economic as improving."
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But Republican pollster Bill McInturff said, "My own sense is that national mood and economic expectations are more important than current facts and figures. And there's no real evidence in our polling that swing-state voters feel better about the direction of the country and the economy."
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