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Mixed Impressions on Taxes
Gaps Exist Between Candidates' Positions, Public Perceptions

By Lori Montgomery and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 11, 2008

As far as Tony Montella is concerned, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is clearly the better choice for president: He's new. He's different. And, Montella said, he's bound to raise taxes.

"He's going to raise them, and they need to be raised." said Montella, 69, a retired electrical contractor who lives in San Gabriel, Calif. "We're in such a big debt and we need to pay it off."

Montella's take on Obama's proposals might come as a shock to the candidate himself, who has spent much of the past three months telling voters that he wants to cut taxes for the vast majority of U.S. families. Throughout the summer, his campaign has hammered with almost single-minded focus on taxes and the economy. Still, Obama is fighting the widespread perception that he would jack up tax rates upon taking office.

McCain, too, is facing misperceptions on his tax proposals, although to a lesser extent.

According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, a majority of voters -- 51 percent -- said their federal taxes would go up under an Obama administration, while a third said so of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has pledged to cut taxes across the board.

Fourteen percent think their taxes will go up no matter who controls the White House.

The results are likely to be particularly frustrating for Obama, who has failed not only to break through on taxes but also to capitalize on McCain's perceived weakness on the economy, the central issue of the campaign, the poll shows. With less than two months until Election Day, the race is effectively deadlocked.

McCain has also increasingly won the confidence of voters to handle economic issues. This comes despite a deepening economic downturn and rising unemployment -- problems that Obama and other Democrats have blamed on President Bush -- as well as McCain's own rhetorical stumbles, including his failure to recall in an interview last month how many houses he owns.

"There's work to do, we don't doubt it," said Bill Burton, an Obama campaign spokesman.

Much of the shift toward McCain stems from gains among white women following his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a self-described hockey mom, as his vice presidential candidate. Last month, before Palin's selection, white women preferred Obama's handling of the economy by 12 points; in the latest poll, they gave McCain a 10-point edge. Among all voters, Obama enjoyed a five-point lead, his narrowest margin yet.

Susan Pratt, 53, a retired nursing professor from Columbia, S.C., said Palin's selection solidified her support for McCain because she likes how Palin cut excess spending in Alaska by, for example, listing a government airplane for auction on eBay.

Pratt said she prefers McCain on taxes. "I simply disagree with Obama's initiative to increase taxes on people in the top tax bracket, simply because they have succeeded and are wealthy.

"That doesn't mean we should tax them more than the working-class," Pratt said, adding that she does not personally earn a high income. McCain's promise to cut taxes "for all income brackets would probably be more fair," she said.

If voters hear any part of Obama's message, it's his vow to treat taxpayers differently depending on their income. Under his plan, lower- and middle-income workers would see large tax cuts, while families in the top 1 percent of the income scale would see an average annual tax increase of nearly $100,000, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

McCain, by contrast, vows to cut taxes for all families, but his plan would concentrate those benefits among the same families who would suffer under Obama. While middle-income families would see an average tax cut of about $321 under McCain, according to the Tax Policy Center, families in the top 1 percent would see an average tax cut of nearly $49,000.

McCain doesn't trumpet the uneven treatment of income groups under his plan. Obama, however, is campaigning on his plan to raises taxes for those who make more than $250,000 a year. Voters appear to have picked up on the message.

Only 37 percent of voters whose household income is less than $50,000 a year believe Obama would raise their taxes, while nearly twice that many -- 72 percent -- in households earning over $100,000 say their tax burden would rise under Obama.

There's a similar pattern for McCain: Voters with household incomes of less than $50,000 are evenly split, with 8 in 10 saying their taxes would go up or stay about the same. But voters in households making over $100,000 overwhelmingly believe their tax rates would stay steady with McCain in the White House.

Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, said that's no accident. By repeatedly accusing Obama of plotting broad tax increases, McCain has simply outmaneuvered Obama on the issue, he said.

"McCain had a successful summer in that he did two things: He framed the race that Obama wants to raise your taxes, and Obama doesn't want to do anything about energy consumption," Reed said. "Then he picked Palin, and now he's in the race."

But Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who crafted the message for the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said any Democrat would be at a disadvantage on the issue of taxes because Republicans have for years effectively painted them as the tax-and-spend party.

"There's always going to be 30 percent of the people who believe a Democrat will raise their taxes," Devine said. The key for Obama, he said, is making sure the people with open minds recognize that he has a different message.

"Taxes are a very important issue in this election. Obama's got a real plan to help people," he said. "And I think that's something that's worth taking head-on."

The poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 5 to 7 among a random national sample of 1,133 adults, including interviews with 961 registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for registered voters.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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