In an election year with the economy ranking as Americans' top concern, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney holds significant advantages over President Obama among white voters who are struggling financially and buffeted by job loss, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Asked which candidate would do more to advance their families' economic interests, middle-class white voters who say they are struggling to maintain their financial positions chose Romney over Obama, 58 percent to 32 percent.
The former Massachusetts governor has a similar advantage on this question among white voters who have lost a job in recent years, or who have seen a family member or close friend face unemployment.
Nonwhite voters, struggling or not, give Obama huge leads over Romney when it comes to looking after their families' financial interests.
The results underscore a continuing challenge for Obama and the Democratic Party with white voters, and particularly those without college degrees, who, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are significantly more likely to be unemployed than those with higher education.
Among whites who described themselves as struggling to maintain their economic footing, nearly seven in 10 lacked a college diploma. Although they lean more Republican than the population in general, it is a group that neither party can ignore. In the new poll, 31 percent of these voters described themselves as Republicans, 27 percent as Democrats.
In 2008, Obama lost whites without college degrees by a big margin, 58 percent to 40 percent, according to the national exit poll. That performance among such voters was similar to Democratic candidates John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000.
"Democrats are very likely to lose those voters" again this year, said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. "The question is by how much."
One factor that may help Obama is that, in the 14 or fewer swing states likely to determine the outcome of the election, unemployment rates have dropped more sharply than they have for the nation as a whole.
But the extended economic hardship many Americans are facing -- across racial and partisan lines -- makes those who are vulnerable a particularly important target group for both campaigns.
The president's re-election team is attempting to portray Romney as out of touch with and unsympathetic to the anxieties of middle-class Americans. A much-talked-about Obama campaign advertisement airing in Ohio depicts Bain Capital, a private-equity firm that Romney founded, as a "vampire" that sucked the last financial lifeblood of failing companies at the expense of their workers.
All of the people featured in the ad criticizing Bain appear to be white.
Romney, meanwhile, portrays the president as out of his depth on economic issues. And in the Republican's current advertising campaign, he highlights steps he would take as president to roll back policies that the Obama administration has put into place.
The telephone poll was conducted May 17 to 20 among a random national sample of 1,004 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.