By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
(CNN) — With four days to go until the presidential election, a new poll indicates the race for arguably the most important battleground state remains very close.
According to a CNN/ORC International survey released Friday, President Barack Obama holds a three point advantage over Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the contest for Ohio’s much fought over 18 electoral votes.
Fifty-percent of likely voters questioned in the poll say they are backing the president, with 47% supporting the former Massachusetts governor. Obama’s three-point edge is within the survey’s sampling error. The survey was conducted Tuesday through Thursday. The poll’s release comes on the same day that the president holds three campaign events and Romney holds two events in Ohio.
“The race in the Buckeye State has remained essentially the same throughout October, with all three CNN/ORC polls taken in October showing President Obama at 50%-51% and all three showing Governor Romney at 46%-47%,” said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
The CNN poll is in the range of the three other non-partisan, live operator surveys of Ohio likely voters also conducted entirely after last week’s final presidential debate. The University of Cincinnati’s Ohio Poll and an American Research Group survey both indicated Obama with two-point edges and a CBS News/New York Times/Quinnipiac University poll indicated Obama with a five-point advantage. All of those margins were within the sampling errors of those polls.
The gender, generation and income gaps that CNN polls have indicated in other states are readily apparent in Ohio as well, with Obama winning women by 16 points, lower-income voters by 30 points and those under age 50 by 15 points, while Romney leads among men by 13 points, and holds the advantage with older voters by 6 points and those making more than $50,000 per year.
“The president’s prospects are boosted by a strong showing among white women, support in the northern parts of the state as well as the Columbus area, and a big margin among early voters,” added Holland. “Romney’s chances in the state rest on white men and a good showing in the central part of the state as well as the southwest corner, home to Cincinnati and Dayton.”
“It’s so close the president will need to run up the margins in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland and its suburbs) and in Columbus, and Governor Romney needs to win Hamilton County (Cincinnati and its suburbs) and elsewhere in southwestern Ohio. It’s not an accident he is in that part of the state tonight,” said CNN Chief National Correspondent John King.
“Base versus base, in a fairly even divided state,” added King, who is reporting Friday from Ohio.
According to the poll, 63% of those who say they have already voted early or who plan to cast a ballot before next Tuesday say they support the president, with 35% backing Romney. But Romney has the 55%-42% advantage among those who plan to vote on Election Day.
Ohio was the state that put President George W. Bush over the top in his 2004 re-election. Four years later Obama carried the state by five points over Sen. John McCain. But the Republicans performed well in the Buckeye State in the 2010 midterm elections, winning back the governor’s office and five House seats from the Democrats.
This cycle Ohio is seeing an outsized amount of campaign traffic from the presidential candidates and ad spending that has flooded the airwaves. The two presidential campaigns, the party committees, and the super PACs and other independent groups backing the two candidates combined have spent over $134 million to run ads on broadcast TV in Ohio since the start of the general election in early April, according to Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), which tracks ad spending for its clients. Just in the past week, nearly $14 million has been shelled out to run spots.
“Ohio is a very different place than four years ago. Our numbers show that and you feel it and see it when you visit here,” adds King. “The GOP offices have much more energy than late 2008.”
The question is, is it enough?
“There is no question the auto bailout helps the president here, but also no question Governor Romney has a more motivated base than John McCain did,” says King.
For months the Obama campaign has touted the bailouts and they were giving prominent prime time placement during the Democratic National Convention in early September. It’s a strategy that the Obama campaign thinks could be the difference in Ohio, a major base for the auto industry.
“The American auto industry is back on top,” said Obama early Friday at a rally in Hilliard, Ohio.
The bailouts were started under President George W. Bush in 2008, but the next year Obama grabbed the keys to the program, managing and funding the bailouts.
Romney opposed the government bailout and pushed for a privately financed, managed bankruptcy of the two automakers. The Obama campaign and other Democrats have attacked Romney over his opposition to the federal assistance.
And they’ve highlighted pushback by General Motors and Chrysler to a Romney TV ad and a radio spot this past week that claimed that both domestic auto makers were sending U.S. jobs to China.
With four days until the election, the poll indicates that more than nine in ten have made up their minds, with 7% saying they could still change their mind on their choice for president.
Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode are also on the presidential ballot in Ohio. When their names were added to the poll, Obama is at 47%, Romney 44%, with Johnson at 5%, Stein at 1% and Goode registering less than one-half of one percent.
“As always, keep in mind that the poll does not, and cannot, predict the outcome of the election,” cautions Holland. “Close elections are inherently unpredictable.”
The CNN poll was conducted by ORC International from Oct. 30-Nov. 1, with 1,000 adults, including 919 registered voters and 796 likely voters questioned by telephone. The survey’s sampling error for likely voters is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.