By Tim Craig and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are locked in an extremely competitive race for Virginia's 13 electoral votes amid widespread public anxiety over the economy and the direction the country is heading, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The survey reinforces Virginia's status as a crucial swing state that could tip the fall election. And the tight race -- likely voters are divided 49 percent for Obama, 46 percent for McCain -- foretells a fierce battle across Virginia over the next six weeks. Should Obama prevail, he would become the first Democrat since 1964 to win the state.
Both candidates have core advantages as they head into the final stretch and try to sway the 19 percent of likely voters who have not made a choice or are not firmly committed to their candidate. Fifty percent of respondents said the economy is the most important issue in their choice of president, and Obama holds a 10-point advantage on who would better handle the problem.
McCain counters with similarly large advantages on the questions of who is better able to deal with the U.S. campaign against terror and an unexpected major crisis. The Arizona Republican also has a wide advantage as a prospective commander in chief.
Voter interest in the presidential race is the highest it has been in any statewide election surveyed by The Washington Post, with nearly six in 10 voters "very closely" tuned in. The poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday as the Bush administration and Congress were negotiating a Wall Street bailout amid great financial uncertainty.
When third-party candidates -- Ralph Nader and Bob Barr -- were included in the questioning, Obama edged to a five-point lead.
One of Obama's biggest advantages in the poll was on the question of who would do more to shake up Washington. On this measure, a clear majority said Obama would do more, despite McCain's efforts in recent weeks to position himself as the true reformer. McCain suffers from a perception that his administration would continue Bush's policies: More than half of voters think McCain would lead in the same direction as Bush, and McCain loses nearly all of these voters.
"I am looking for a leader who is young, dynamic and wants to try to make the changes we need for all kinds of things, from Social Security to energy to dealing with foreign countries," said Sandra Blanchard, 71, a retired music teacher from Fairfax County who plans to vote for Obama.
Foreign affairs have historically played a big role in the outcome of presidential contests in Virginia, which is home to 800,000 military veterans and more than a dozen military installations.
Although voters split over which candidate can best manage the war in Iraq, McCain holds a 10-point lead on handling terrorism or an unexpected major crisis.
"I am an independent, and I think Senator Obama is dangerously naive," said James Walker, 63 of Fairfax. "I am old enough to remember Jimmy Carter. . . . We are a superpower. We've got to act decisively, or those who oppose us will walk all over us."
McCain also holds a significant advantage among veterans surveyed -- usually a large portion of the Virginia electorate. Among that group, McCain holds a 57 percent to 38 percent advantage.
Nearly three-quarters of voters say McCain would be a good commander in chief and knows enough about foreign affairs to be president. Obama lags far behind on those questions, with 51 percent of voters saying he would be a good commander in chief and 55 percent crediting him with sufficient knowledge of world affairs.
Still, Virginians are looking for a new direction: 83 percent of all voters said the country is seriously on the wrong track, and nearly as many are concerned about the performance of the stock market and the broader economy.
The poll gives Democrats a slight advantage in terms of partisan identification, echoing shifts in national polling data. Adjusting this sample to the slim GOP advantages from previous Virginia elections would give McCain a small boost, but the contest would remain extremely tight.
Obama is powered by near-universal backing from African Americans -- 96 percent support among blacks, much higher than previous Democratic presidential candidates. He also has high levels of support from college-educated white women and relies more broadly on the coalition of voters who lifted two Virginia Democrats to recent victory: Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in 2005 and Sen. James Webb in 2006.
That includes a geographic split in the state. Overall, 59 percent of Northern Virginia voters support Obama -- very close to the 60 percent level that Democratic strategists identify as crucial, and the level that Kaine and Webb achieved in their victories. About three in 10 voters live in the area, and the numbers reflect how deeply the region has altered the commonwealth's political landscape in favor of Democrats.
Obama benefits from the broad popularity of the two officeholders: Two-thirds of voters approve of the way Kaine is handling his duties, and 54 percent approve of Webb's job performance. The Illinois senator also gets a lift from the U.S. Senate race. In the battle to replace retiring Sen. John W. Warner (R), Democrat Mark R. Warner holds a 61 percent to 31 percent advantage over James S. Gilmore III among likely voters. Both candidates are former governors.
Virginia Democrats hope Warner's popularity might rub off on Obama, especially in the rural parts of the state where Obama did poorly in the Feb. 12 Democratic primary. In the new poll, more than three-quarters of those voting for Warner also back Obama.
In the presidential contest, McCain has a wide lead in western Virginia, with Obama performing about as well as past statewide Democratic candidates. McCain holds a slim lead in Richmond and the eastern parts of the state.
In Hampton Roads, an area Bush won by four percentage points in 2004, 50 percent of voters surveyed back Obama, while 45 percent support McCain. African Americans account for about three in 10 voters in Hampton Roads.
Half of all Virginia voters named the economy as their top concern, and they favor Obama by a nearly 2 to 1 margin. Obama also holds a 10-point advantage as the one who would do a better job managing the economy, and he has a similar edge when voters are asked whom they trust to fix the problems in the financial industry. Despite Virginia's relatively low unemployment rate, about six in 10 Virginians are very or somewhat worried about their family's finances.
Another core advantage for Obama in the poll is that voters, by a 56 percent to 33 percent margin, see him as more in tune with the economic problems that people face.
Fewer than two in 10 voters name the war in Iraq or national security issues as the most important issue in the election. Virginia voters instead appear to be zeroing in on economic concerns. About eight in 10 voters are worried about the economy's direction, and half see the economy as being in serious long-term decline.
Obama has the edge among those seeing a structural shift, while McCain wins more than two-thirds of those who see only temporary economic problems.
The economic jitters also help Obama with white voters.
Among whites -- who make up three-quarters of those most likely to vote on Election Day -- Obama does significantly better with those expressing financial anxiety than among those who are less concerned.
Overall, Obama trails McCain by 20 percentage points among white voters. But that is closer to Webb's 16-point deficit among whites in 2006 than John F. Kerry's 36-point loss among whites in 2004.
Among black voters in Virginia, Obama is outperforming Kerry and other Democrats in previous presidential elections. In this poll, 96 percent of African Americans support Obama, with 4 percent preferring McCain. In 2004, 12 percent of blacks supported Bush; in 2006, 15 percent backed Republican senator George Allen in his failed bid for reelection.
Thirty percent of black voters call the candidates' race an important factor in their vote, double the percentage of white voters who said so.
McCain is struggling to match the appeal Bush had in 2004 with white voters younger than 45 years old. Four years ago, Bush won 69 percent of white voters younger than 45. McCain currently attracts barely more than half of these voters.
Antha Lyons, 40, a homemaker who lives in Wise County in southwestern Virginia, said she supports McCain. She noted that she has a son in the Air Force and likes McCain's military background.
"I believe someone who wants to be commander in chief should have been in the military," said Lyons, who describes herself as an independent.
The poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 18-21 among 1,001 Virginia adults. The results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points; the error margin is four points for the sample of 698 likely voters.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.