President Obama holds a 10-point lead over challenger Mitt Romney in the latest Inquirer poll of likely New Jersey presidential voters, indicating that he will win the state but fall short of his 16-point margin of victory in the state in 2008.
The Inquirer New Jersey Poll, conducted Tuesday through Thursday, with less than two weeks to go before the election, could reflect a decline in enthusiasm for Obama nationally compared with four years ago, when he became the first African American president by running on a platform of change.
Any drop in support for Obama in New Jersey won't affect the outcome in the state, where the president will win and pick up 14 electoral votes, pollsters said.
But it could be a sign that support is soft in traditionally Democratic states and that he could lose the national popular vote. That needn't prevent him from winning the Electoral College and the presidency, as candidate George W. Bush demonstrated in 2000.
The telephone poll of 601 voters was conducted by a bipartisan team of pollsters. It has a sampling error of 4 percentage points.
"Everybody knows, and knew going into the thing, that the 2008 election could not be replicated," said the survey's Democratic pollster, Jefrey Pollock, president of Global Strategy Group.
"The president is dealing with tighter races."
One reason is incumbency. "Whenever you're having an election that can be a referendum on the incumbent, it's a different election," Pollock said. Voters look at the nation and see that not "all of our problems are fixed."
Adam Geller of National Research Inc., the GOP pollster on the survey, said, "The energy, as we've seen nationally, seems to be on the side of the Republican Party."
Not so for one likely voter, James Shull, 49, a press operator from Browns Mills. Shull hasn't voted in 20 years: The wave of enthusiasm that swept Obama into office in 2008 missed him.
"I wasn't real crazy about what I was seeing from either candidate back then," he said. "I was four years younger and four years dumber."
But Obama's health-care changes have made Shull want to reelect the president. He had just put his 24-year-old daughter back on his health insurance in late 2010, thanks to an Obamacare provision, when she suffered a bout with kidney stones that had to be surgically removed.
She now is studying at Lincoln Tech to be a nurse.
Shull has four children, three of whom will be able to vote this year. They're all on his insurance - and they're all voting for Obama.
But from David Paggi's viewpoint in Mullica Hill, Obama is "not a leader." If he were, said the 60-year-old retired senior master sergeant in the Air National Guard, "we could get things done through Congress."
"If you're not willing to compromise and work with the people who were elected, then you're not a leader," Paggi said.
"He's putting our country into a hole that it's very hard to get out of. If I ran my household like he ran the government, we'd be broke."
Only 41 percent of New Jerseyans believe the country is headed in the right direction, according to poll results, while 50 percent say they think New Jersey is on the right track.
That could be linked to Gov. Christie's sustained popularity in the state. Christie and Obama are statistically tied when it comes to favorability, at 58 percent for Obama and 57 percent for Christie.
Christie, though, has a higher job-approval rating than Obama - 59 percent compared with 55 percent. The governor is up for reelection next year.
As for Romney, for whom Christie has campaigned, in the weeks since the last Inquirer poll he has gained ground among independent voters in the Garden State, whittling a 13-point deficit to Obama into a 6-point shortfall.
Geller said he found it interesting that Obama appears to be having trouble among men - with only a 3-point lead over Romney in New Jersey. He also is struggling among senior citizens.
Obama's support is driven by voters aged 18 to 35, Geller said, and it is unclear whether they will turn out in the same numbers as in 2008.
Obama "knows that, which is why he's been spending a better part of his time going on late-night talk shows, appearing in Rolling Stone, and touring college campuses," Geller said.
Though Obama remains popular in the state, Romney's favorability ratings in the state increased from 45 percent to 49 percent compared with The Inquirer's last poll, driven in part by his increased popularity among men.
In the seven South Jersey counties (Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem), Obama has stronger support than he does statewide - 52 percent to Romney's 39 percent.
One South Jerseyan, Troy Smith, 40, a computer technician in Gloucester Township, said he's just as excited to vote for Obama this year as he was in 2008.
"I think he's doing a good job with what he's up against," Smith said, referring to the recession and the Republican takeover of Congress in 2010. "You had the Republicans come in and their agenda was to get Obama out, not to help the country."
Of Romney, he said: "It's hard to believe that Gov. Romney can relate to the average Joe."
Asked why the race was tightening, Smith said he believes that "people are looking more at what Romney is saying, and not what actually he has done."