By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Voters are deeply divided over the terms of the government's $700 billion economic rescue package but overwhelmingly fear that the House's rejection of the measure on Monday could deepen the country's financial woes, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
A majority of voters see the turmoil in financial and credit markets as an economic "crisis," are guarded in their confidence that government action will resolve the situation and remain deeply pessimistic about the direction of the nation's economy. Concern about the House's rejection of the plan is widely shared across party lines.
Fluctuations on Wall Street continue to roil the presidential contest between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, the poll shows, with the economy still by far the dominant issue among voters with just five weeks to go before Election Day.
Negativity about the country's financial prospects continues to lift Obama, but he now has a narrower advantage over McCain in Post-ABC polling than he did last week. Overall, the senator from Illinois holds a slim lead in the new national poll, with likely voters dividing 50 percent for Obama and 46 percent for McCain.
In the last poll, Obama led by a nine-point margin. At that time, McCain advisers sharply criticized the results as being out of step with other surveys. Still, the new poll marks only the second time either of the candidates has reached 50 percent. Other national polls also indicate that Obama opened up a lead as the nation's economic situation deteriorated over the past two weeks.
The new survey began the night after the first presidential debate, held Friday at the University of Mississippi, and while a plurality of voters said Obama performed better than McCain, 38 percent to 24 percent, large numbers said it was essentially a tie or expressed no opinion.
Contrary to their advisers' hopes, the debate did not help either candidate deal with major vulnerabilities, in part because few voters said the performances changed their views.
Much of the debate dealt with foreign policy and national security, but Obama made no headway on the question of whether he would make a good commander in chief. As in previous polls, voters in the post-debate poll are evenly divided on his ability to manage the U.S. military -- 46 percent said he would be good in that role, while 48 percent said he would not.
The debate did not give Obama a boost on the commander-in-chief question, but he did edge up slightly on the query about his overall experience. In the new poll, a slim majority of voters said he has enough experience to be an effective president, a slight increase from the Sept. 5-7 Post-ABC poll.
For McCain, a major hindrance has been his perceived ties to the deeply unpopular Republican president. Slightly more than half of voters, 53 percent, said they think the senator from Arizona would lead the country in the same direction as President Bush, a small move up from a Post-ABC poll taken after the GOP convention early last month. Voters who see McCain's candidacy as a continuation of Bush's policies overwhelmingly back Obama.
The connection with Bush is a growing problem, as the sagging economy has added to the drag on public assessments of the president. Bush's approval rating has now dropped to an all-time low in Post-ABC polling, with 26 percent giving him positive marks for his performance and 70 percent giving him negative reviews.
Only two modern presidents -- Harry S. Truman and Richard M. Nixon -- have had lower approval ratings, and none has had higher disapproval numbers. On the economy, 22 percent said they approved of the way Bush is doing his job. That, too, is a new career low for him.
Nearly three in 10 voters singled out the president as the principal reason the country is in its current economic straits. Wall Street financial institutions and banks followed closely on the blame list. Voters also mention the government, Congress, Republicans, Democrats, overextended home buyers and others as root causes.
As for Monday's ill-fated House vote, poll respondents, by a 2 to 1 ratio, hold congressional Republicans more responsible for the rejection of the package supported by Bush, McCain, Obama and congressional leaders of both parties.
Public assessments of who is a "safe" pick for the presidency have shifted. Compared with a June poll, slightly more voters now call Obama a safe choice than said so of McCain (55 percent to 51 percent). Obama ticked up from 50 percent to 55 percent over past three months on that question, with the increase almost entirely among Democrats. McCain dropped from 57 percent to 51 percent, with independents contributing to the decline.
Almost all voters consider the current financial situation a big problem, with a majority, 52 percent, describing it as a crisis. And in a question asked of a parallel sample of randomly selected adults on Monday evening after the House's rejection, voters were also nearly unanimous in their concern that the vote would deepen the financial downturn.
In the Monday night poll, voters were evenly divided -- 45 percent in favor, 47 percent opposed -- on the economic package proposed by the administration and altered by congressional negotiators. Forty-four percent said Republicans were responsible for the House defeat, 21 percent held Democrats accountable and 17 percent said the parties were equally responsible.
One reason behind the division on the rescue plan is that few voters said it did "the right amount" for financial institutions, the economy or for "ordinary Americans." Moreover, voters split about evenly on whether the plan did too much or too little for financial firms that got into trouble, nearly half said it did not do enough to jump-start the economy and more than six in 10 said it did not adequately protect average people.
After the House vote and a nearly 800-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average, voters expressed only tepid confidence in the government's ability to solve the problem, with 51 percent saying they were confident government action could prevent the situation from getting worse, and 47 percent saying they were not.
With the economy remaining the campaign's top issue, Obama continues to get a boost from perceived advantages on the topic among the full poll sample. He holds a large lead among the 51 percent of voters who prioritize economic issues and has a clear edge as the candidate more in tune with the voters' financial concerns. Obama also still has a double-digit advantage on fixing the problems with major financial institutions.
Obama trails McCain among white voters by 13 percentage points in the new poll -- similar to Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry's deficit in 2004 -- but runs significantly better among those who are pessimistic about the country's and their family's economic future.
But alongside Obama's edge on the economy, McCain has made small but consistent gains on foreign policy following the presidential debate, regaining ground he had temporarily ceded to his rival.
McCain has now nudged ahead as the candidate better able to handle international affairs, the war in Iraq, terrorism and an unexpected major crisis.
McCain also now runs evenly with Obama on the question of who would do more to work with members of the other party in Congress next year. In late August, Obama held a 12-point advantage in that area, but now the two are nearly tied, with 47 percent saying McCain would do a better job dealing with both Democrats and Republicans and 45 percent saying Obama. Most of McCain's gains on this question came from Republicans, but independents also tipped toward him.
Obama continues to hold sizable advantages on bringing change to Washington (he is up 28 points on that front), topping 60 percent for the first time. Obama also has large advantages on having the better personality and temperament (up 23 points) and, as noted, understanding people's economic problems (up 19 points).
In the race for the White House, McCain and Obama are running evenly among men, with Obama up seven points among women. Each wins about nine in 10 voters from his own party, which gives Obama a small advantage because more Americans identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans.
In the current poll, the candidates split independents about evenly -- 48 percent for McCain, 45 percent for Obama. Independents, one of the keys to the outcome of the election, have shifted back and forth between the two over the past few months.
Interest continues to edge higher, with 58 percent of all voters now paying "very close" attention. That is more than twice the level of intense focus as there was at this point in the 2000 election.
The poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 27 to 29, among a random national sample of 1,271 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins for subgroups are higher. Some questions were asked of a parallel sample of 520 randomly selected adults on Sept. 29; those results have a four-point error margin.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.