GWEN IFILL: The presidential candidates are in hand-to-hand combat. The polls are tight. But what's driving the voters?
President Obama appears to be leading for now, but a number of new polls out this week show it's about more than just the horse race. It's about leadership.
A Pew Research Center survey released today finds President Obama outpaces Mitt Romney 51 percent to 37 percent when voters are asked which candidate has good judgment in a crisis.
And even though voters still think the nation is on the wrong track, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows 42 percent of voters are optimistic the economy will improve next year. That's up six points in a single month and 15 points since July.
But the electorate remains divided.
According to Pew, 69 percent of Romney voters say they are angry at Mr. Obama; 49 percent of Obama voters say the same thing about Mr. Romney.
So what does this tell us about the mood of the electorate?
Andy, as you looked at your poll numbers today, what was the most revealing thing you found about what this told you about what voters are thinking?
ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: Well, voters are less interested in this campaign. They're more critical of its negativity.
But 80 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats say it matters who wins. And if you look at all of the turnout indicators, they suggest high turnout, probably at the 60 percent level as we saw in 2008 and 2004.
We're not going to have a 51 percent-52 percent turnout. People are engaged, but they're engaged in a negative way.
GWEN IFILL: People are engaged, Mark?
MARK BLUMENTHAL, The Huffington Post: I think one of little nuggets from the Pew Research survey that really stood out for me was the percentage of African-Americans who said that they're paying a lot of attention to the campaign. I think it's 70 percent.
GWEN IFILL: Is that more or less?
MARK BLUMENTHAL: It's exactly the same as in 2008. And if that signals the same level of engagement and turnout, there are a whole bunch of states on the election dashboard we run that are tipping blue, they are going to stay blue that have large African-American populations that will turn out heavily.
GWEN IFILL: But voters are engaged. Are they enthusiastic about these two candidates?
MARK BLUMENTHAL: I think the evidence from the Pew survey and from others says that there's a lot more enthusiasm among Obama supporters about him than among Romney.
Now, Romney supporters are enthusiastically anti-Obama. And so I think that at best equals out.
GWEN IFILL: We -- this weird dichotomy about everyone thinking still that the economy and that the country is on the wrong track, yet being optimistic about the future, how do you figure that out?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, what we have had are a lot of ups and downs.
We are the -- the latest Michigan surveys come out -- will come out or has come out showing a pretty high number, but it only brings us back to where we were in January.
GWEN IFILL: What do you mean by a high number?
ANDREW KOHUT: A high number in terms of consumer confidence.
GWEN IFILL: Oh, OK.
ANDREW KOHUT: And so there's a fragility to people's attitudes about the future, because we have been up and down, and people have been disappointed.
I think the key thing is, people think it's really important, that the choice is really important. Republicans think it's important because they so abhor President Obama and his policies, and the Democrats are not about to accept Mitt Romney, who they have a very poor opinion of.
GWEN IFILL: Is this something, Mark, that's new since the conventions? Because, all year long, we have been hearing that voters are so turned off by the negativity, that you would think that would depress enthusiasm and engagement.
MARK BLUMENTHAL: I think the Democratic Convention appears, at least from the snapshot of the moment, to have reenergized a lot of Democrats who I think were feeling badly about everything about politics and the economy.
And I think Obama did succeed in convincing a small number of voters that his economic policies are under way and going to work that may have been more skeptical.
GWEN IFILL: Romney didn't?
MARK BLUMENTHAL: I think the key, key question in the campaign is which candidate is going to succeed in convincing voters that he is better to fix the economy.
And Romney hasn't really moved ahead of Obama on that, despite the economic condition. And I think the reason for that is in this result from the Pew Research survey and others that showed by a 66-23 margin, Americans choose Obama as someone who cares more about their lives.
I think that's the wording. And I think the question they're asking themselves is not just who's going to fix the economy, but for whom. Are they going to fix it for me and my family?
GWEN IFILL: Do these polls tell us anything about what people -- how people view either of these two as a leader?
After all, we're voting for the commander in chief. Last week, we had this dust-up about foreign policy. And, in fact, it continued into this week.
Is there anything that you're seeing in these numbers that shows that people look at these two and they can imagine one as president and not the other?
ANDREW KOHUT: Yes. Well, that's really -- the problem really here is for Romney, because his favorable ratings haven't gone up.
He's not seen as any more credible than he was prior to the conventions. They don't think he is honest -- honest and trustworthy to a great extent.
He's afraid to take unpopular positions. And they don't see him as empathetic. He doesn't understand people like him. He doesn't connect with the average guy.
And there's no -- there's no change in these numbers. He didn't fulfill his mission to improve public confidence in him as a leader, both in personal terms and certainly in terms -- as Mark was noting, in terms of strong leader, good judgment in a crisis. Obama's got him by double digits on these things.
GWEN IFILL: How hardened are voters' attitudes about these two candidates? We know there's been -- the cliche is almost that it's just the 10 percent or the 6 percent or 7 percent in the middle who remain undecided or up for grabs.
Are people just -- are their heels dug in at this point?
MARK BLUMENTHAL: I think a lot of this is just the nature of presidential campaigns, that most voters know who they're going to vote for.
And there's a fair amount of division. And part of the challenge for both campaigns here is that that 10 percent or 15 percent or whatever the number is...
MARK BLUMENTHAL: ... these are voters who are -- who tend to be disengaged in politics and tend to discount a lot of the arguments that they hear as being just the noise and the political bickering. So it's hard for them to make this case, the cases they want to make.
GWEN IFILL: And when you look through these numbers and you break it down demographically in terms of who's supporting whom, you mentioned African-Americans.
What about gender splits and income splits, education splits?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, by gender, we have men about evenly divided between the two candidates and a very sizable Obama margin among women.
There is both an education and an income effect, where the Republican candidate does somewhat better.
But race is the big factor. Romney leads among white voters. And most of that lead is concentrated among working-class white voters, not white college graduates.
So, class matters. Race matters.
One of the interesting things that we have done in this poll is, we have looked at whether racism, a set of attitudes which are correlated with racism has any greater impact on the propensity to vote for Obama than it had in 2008. And it was there in 2008. He won despite still the undercurrent of racism.
We are not a post-racial society. That wasn't true then. But it's no less true now or no more true now.
GWEN IFILL: Any targets of opportunity, any good news for Romney in any of this polling?
MARK BLUMENTHAL: Well, I suppose the one -- the one -- go back to the engagement numbers. The one place where interest is down most sharply in this survey is among younger voters, who were more heavily for Obama and who still tend to go for Obama.
And that's probably the one place where, you know, if the engagement is riled up by the conventions, that hasn't happened. And, you know, the best news, I suppose, for Romney is that there's still six-and-a-half weeks left.
GWEN IFILL: And we will be here every one of those six-and-a-half weeks covering this story.
Mark Blumenthal, Andy Kohut, thanks so much.
ANDREW KOHUT: You're welcome.