Support for Each Candidate Holds Steady

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 24, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 23 -- Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are locked in a highly competitive race for the White House, with voters giving McCain a clear edge as a potential commander in chief but Obama a sizable advantage on economic issues, the subject of greatest concern to voters, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Heading into two critical weeks of the campaign -- the four-day Democratic National Convention is set to open here on Monday, followed by the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities next week -- Obama maintains a narrow, six-point edge over McCain among registered voters. Among those most likely to vote, 49 percent back Obama and 45 percent back McCain.

The poll was completed just before Obama announced the selection of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware as his vice presidential running mate.

The results show little movement from the last Post-ABC survey, conducted in mid-July, before Obama embarked on a highly publicized trip overseas and prior to a series of fierce exchanges between the campaigns. Other recent national polls also show only limited changes in the overall race heading into the conventions, although several of those surveys indicate an even-tighter race.

Relative stability in the race stems in part from both sides' legions of committed supporters. About three-quarters of supporters on both sides said they will "definitely" vote for their current choice. Still, about three in 10 registered voters, and nearly as many likely voters, are "movable" -- those who are less solidly behind their pick or who have yet to decide. The number of swing voters this year is substantially higher than it was at this time in 2004, highlighting the importance of the next two weeks as the candidates strive to define themselves and their opponents.

About four in 10 voters cited the economy and jobs as their top voting issue. The war in Iraq, which had been the preeminent concern for voters in the 2006 midterm elections, is now cited by 14 percent of respondents, the lowest level recorded in Post-ABC polls during this election cycle. All other issues, including terrorism, energy and health care, rated in single digits.

Obama's selection of Biden is unlikely to shake up the race in the short term. Three-quarters of registered voters said Obama's choice of Biden, a six-term U.S. senator, would not sway their votes in either direction. And among those who said the selection would make a difference, about as many said they were more likely to support Obama with Biden on the ticket as said they would be less likely to do so.

With Biden on the ticket, though, Obama aims to deal with what has become a significant hurdle. In the new poll, half of registered voters said the presumptive Democratic nominee has sufficient experience to serve effectively as president. He has been unable to top 50 percent on that question since the beginning of the campaign.

The focus on foreign policy crises over the past month, including the Russian invasion of Georgia, has played to McCain's perceived strengths among the electorate. He holds 2 to 1 leads over Obama in the new poll as the candidate with better knowledge of world affairs and the one who would make a better commander in chief. He is also regarded as superior to Obama in combating international terrorism and has a slender advantage on international affairs generally, the latter thanks to a clear edge among independents.

But on the question of who is better equipped to deal with specific foreign policy problems, McCain's advantages are less apparent. Voters rate McCain and Obama evenly on handling the situation in Iraq, and McCain has a negligible advantage in dealing with U.S. relations with Russia.

And it is Obama who continues to hold a lead on dealing with the nation's flagging economy, although his margin on that crucial question is somewhat narrower than it was a month ago. Where Obama is strongest is in public assessments of his candidacy and personality. He has a better than 2 to 1 edge as the more optimistic candidate and a 21-point advantage on who would do more to stand up to special interests.

Although both candidates have tried to stress their desire to govern in a bipartisan fashion, voters by a 12-point margin see Obama as the one more likely to work cooperatively with Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

While McCain is judged as the better candidate to deal with unexpected crises, Obama for the first time has a slight edge as the "stronger leader" of the two, having whittled down what was a double-digit advantage for McCain in early March. Obama is seen as more empathetic than McCain and the one who is more in tune with respondents' personal values.

As for the general tenor of the campaign, about two-thirds, 64 percent, said Obama is primarily focused on addressing the issues; 45 percent said so of McCain. On McCain's campaign, about as many, 48 percent, said he was instead mainly focused on attacking Obama.

Independents overall remain about evenly split in their vote preferences: 45 percent support Obama, 43 percent McCain. Each candidate garners an identical 59 percent favorable rating from independents, underscoring some voters' tough choices ahead.

Among all registered voters, 62 percent have a favorable impression of Obama, and at 59 percent, McCain is about as highly regarded. Those numbers have held steady since the general-election campaign started in earnest following the end of the Democratic primaries in early June. Among movable voters, nearly half have favorable views of both Obama and McCain.

McCain has maintained in range against Obama despite a political climate that continues to favor Democrats over Republicans.

President Bush's approval rating remains near record lows -- 30 percent in this poll -- and nearly half of all voters view the GOP unfavorably. Nearly six in 10 said that if elected president, McCain would mainly continue Bush's policies. One thing tilting in McCain's favor on this score, however, is that 52 percent of voters now believe the United States is making significant progress in Iraq, marking the first time since late 2005 that more than half expressed that view.

Nevertheless, McCain's candidacy cannot match Obama's on enthusiasm. More voters are enthusiastic about Obama's run than McCain's, and while almost all of those who support a candidate are enthusiastically behind their pick, Obama's backers are about twice as likely to call themselves "very enthusiastic," 52 to 28 percent.

Obama's overall lead in the new poll is attributable in large measure to a nearly 20-point advantage among female voters. He trails McCain by nine points among men. There is also a decided generational gap in the election, with Obama ahead by 22 points among voters younger than 35, but seniors dividing 45 percent for McCain, 41 percent for Obama.

The conventions are regarded as "extremely" or "very" important to the choice of 29 percent of respondents.

The conventions are also about solidifying support among the party faithful. So far, Republicans have been slightly more likely to back McCain than Democrats have been to support Obama (84 to 79 percent in this poll), in part because 20 percent of those who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries said they now favor McCain over Obama. But 70 percent of her supporters back Obama -- the highest level since she suspended her campaign in June.

The poll was conducted by telephone from Aug. 19 to 22 among a random national sample of 1,108 adults, including interviews with 916 registered voters. Results among registered voters have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Cohen reported from Washington. Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report from Washington.

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