By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Aided by the faltering economy, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has the upper hand in the race for Ohio, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, putting Republican John McCain at a disadvantage in a state considered vital to his chances of winning the White House in November.
The state's voters, long suffering from a poor economy and newly battered by the turmoil in the financial, credit and housing markets, give Obama stronger marks on handling the economy, creating jobs and dealing with tax policy. The senator from Illinois also has a big lead as the candidate more in tune with the economic problems people are confronting, a significant benefit as more than half of all voters consider the economy and jobs the campaign's top issue.
Overall, among likely voters in the new poll, 51 percent said they would support Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), if the election were held today, while 45 percent said they would back McCain and his vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
McCain has the edge on handling the U.S. fight against terrorism and, narrowly, the Iraq war, but those issues are far less important this year. Just 9 percent of voters call them their top issues.
Still, about two in 10 voters are "movable," nearly double the proportion who were in that position two weeks before the 2004 election, suggesting the possibility of some significant shifts in the weeks ahead.
Beyond that, Obama holds a 2 to 1 advantage over McCain as the candidate more likely to bring needed change to Washington.
The new survey underscores the degree to which the economic crisis has shaken up the presidential race and the obstacles that now confront McCain in the final month of the campaign.
No Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio, and the state's 20 electoral votes are of paramount importance to McCain. If the senator from Arizona were to win every other state that President Bush carried four years ago, but lose Ohio, he would fall four electoral votes short of the 270 needed to win the White House. Only Florida, of other major battlegrounds the Republicans won in the past two elections, looms as large as Ohio in determining the next president.
The support for Obama comes at an opportune time for the Democrat, as Ohioans began early voting a week ago at polling places statewide. The Ohio secretary of state's office estimates that a quarter of all voters will cast their ballots as absentees or at an early voting location before Election Day, more than twice as many as did so four years ago.
There are indications from the survey that Obama also may have an early advantage in mobilizing and turning out Ohio voters over the next month. He has more enthusiastic supporters than McCain does, and has reached more voters in Ohio than his rival.
Nearly four in 10 voters said they have already been contacted by someone from the Obama campaign either by phone or in person. That is significantly higher than the number who said they have heard from the McCain campaign. It also is higher than the number who said they had been called or visited by the campaigns of Bush or Democrat John F. Kerry in mid-October four years ago.
Including e-mail and text messages this year, the Obama campaign has contacted 43 percent of all voters and the McCain campaign has been in touch with 33 percent. Both sides have reached out to the party faithful, but Obama has done somewhat better at targeting independents.
Obama's lead in Ohio stems in large part from broad support among women, young voters and those focused on the country's, and their own, finances.
Women divided 50-50 between Bush and Kerry four years ago. Now they break for Obama by a 14-point margin. Men tilt narrowly to the Republican nominee, just as they did toward Bush, according to network exit polling.
McCain holds a seven-point edge among white voters, narrower than Bush's 12 points in 2004, with the difference primarily among white women. Almost all black voters support Obama. Four years ago, 16 percent of African Americans supported Bush over Kerry.
Obama also is doing better with young and old voters than Kerry did on Election Day four years ago. Among those younger than 30, Obama has a 2 to 1 lead over McCain. Among those 30 and older, the candidates are tied. Dianne Amos, 60, an ardent McCain supporter from Logan, is engaged in some intergenerational politicking. In a follow-up interview, she said she is "e-mailing back and forth" with her grandson, an Obama supporter. "I keep trying to explain things to him," she said.
Obama is beating McCain by nearly 3 to 1 in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, and also holds a lead in the northeast portion of the state, an area including the hard-hit industrial cities of Akron, Canton and Youngstown.
McCain's edge in the southwestern part of the state, including Cincinnati and Dayton, is as big as Bush's win was there four years ago, but the Republican nominee's numbers in the central part of the state do not measure up to the president's. Four years ago, Bush won central Ohio and the northwest part of the state around Toledo by eight percentage points. In the Post-ABC News poll, those areas split 49 percent for Obama, 45 percent for McCain.
One clear drag on McCain is the unpopularity of the president. In the most recent Post-ABC national poll, Bush's approval rating stood at 26 percent. Four years ago, both nationally and in Ohio, just over half of all voters gave him positive marks. McCain has sought to portray himself as someone who, with Palin, would reform Washington and change the way business is done in the capital. But in the new poll, more than half of all Ohio voters see McCain as someone who would continue Bush's policies, and nearly all of these voters support Obama.
"Basically, I don't like the Reaganomics of the Republican Party," said Tina Nelson, 27, of Powell, in an interview after the survey. Nelson said an Obama speech on the financial situation "really got to me. It made a lot of sense."
It is the slumping economy that has deeply scrambled voting patterns in the state. The economy was the most important issue in Ohio in 2004, but the Iraq war and terrorism together were cited by as many Ohio voters as were economic concerns, according to a pre-election ABC News poll that year.
Obama wins "economy voters" in the new poll by 62 to 34 percent, and, as noted, more voters prefer him on dealing with the economy (by a 13-point margin), jobs (14 points) and taxes (14 points). And he has an even bigger edge on understanding the financial problems people are facing: Fifty-three percent of voters see him as more in touch on this score, compared with 35 percent who side with McCain.
This advantage on empathy is one of the things that helps Obama among white voters. He has an 11-point edge among that group on this question, and more than 80 percent of those who see him as more in tune support him over McCain.
For Russell Baron, 48, from the Cleveland suburb of Brook Park, McCain cannot compete on the economy. "He's admitted that he doesn't really know much about the economy," he said. "Well, gee, that's a bad thing to say right now."
Dessie Knight, 74, of Quaker City, by contrast, questions Obama's experience on the economy, and sides with McCain on the issue. Overall in the poll, just over half of voters said Obama has enough experience to serve effectively as president.
The unemployment rate in Ohio hit 7.4 percent in August, among the highest in the nation and the highest of any battleground state other than Michigan, territory the McCain campaign effectively ceded last week by pulling out its resources.
Obama lost the Ohio Democratic primary to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) by 10 percentage points, prompting widespread concerns among Democrats that he would have a tough time winning the state.
The new data show Obama doing as well as McCain at holding on to partisans, despite any lingering disgruntlement over the Democratic nomination battle: Ninety-one percent of Democrats back Obama, while 90 percent of Republicans support McCain. But support for Obama does lag a bit among white Democratic women relative to Kerry's support in 2004. And among all Democrats who would have preferred Clinton to be atop the party's ticket, 14 percent support McCain.
Clinton holdouts do not tip the balance, however, in part because Democrats outnumber Republicans among Ohio voters, a reversal from 2004.
Many of those who described themselves as Republicans four years ago now appear to identify as independents, boosting McCain to a tie among this key voting bloc. Kerry won independents by nearly 20 points.
Another group of crucial swing voters is political moderates, and they break for Obama by 22 points, similar to Kerry's margin from 2004. McCain's choice of Palin as his No. 2 appears to be a problem for him among these voters.
Nearly four in 10 moderates in the poll said they were less apt to vote for McCain because of the Palin pick, double the proportion drawn to him as a result. By contrast, Biden attracts three times as many moderates to Obama as he pushes away.
Peggy Burkett, 52, an undecided voter from Youngstown, for one, said Biden "may tip the balance" toward Obama. But she added: "I probably won't know who I'll support until I get to the precinct on Election Day."
Another wild card in Ohio is high public doubt about the vote count on Nov. 4. Only about a third of voters are "very confident" that ballots in the state will be counted accurately, with African Americans much less likely than whites to be so confident in the tally. Voters in Cuyahoga express the highest levels of skepticism of the count, much higher than the level of concern elsewhere.
The poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 3 to 5 among a random sample of 1,010 adults in Ohio. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus three percentage points; it is 3.5 points for the sample of 772 likely voters.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.