Democrat Remains Well Ahead

By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Democrat Barack Obama enters the final two weeks of the presidential campaign holding a clear lead over Republican John McCain, aided by voters' focus on the shaky economy and perceptions that he is better equipped to handle those problems than his rival.

The new findings come from the first release of the Washington Post-ABC News daily tracking poll, which will provide a continuing look at the campaign between now and Nov. 4. The Post will offer daily updates on the state of the race in the newspaper and each day at 5 p.m. on

The new survey shows Obama leading McCain by 53 percent to 44 percent among likely voters, little changed from a Post-ABC News poll released Oct. 13. Among all registered voters, Obama leads by 10 points, 52 percent to 42 percent.

While Obama's lead is steady across these polls, there were indications that McCain has improved his position on some issues and some attributes important to voters' decision-making. Since the Post-ABC poll taken before the final debate, McCain has narrowed the gap with Obama on understanding the economic problems people in the country are facing, on bringing needed change to Washington and on the question of which candidate is the "stronger leader."

McCain's biggest obstacle remains the broad political climate, which is uncharacteristically dominated by a single issue -- the nation's sagging economy. Nearly nine in 10 are worried about the direction the economy is headed, and more than half of voters (53 percent) call the economy and jobs their central voting concern.

Asked whom they trust to deal with the economy, 55 percent sided with Obama, 39 percent with McCain; that is little changed from last week. Obama still holds a 10-point advantage on handling tax policy.

McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has become a drag on the GOP ticket: 52 percent of voters said McCain's selection of her makes them doubt the types of decisions he would make as president, a reversal from a Post-ABC poll following the nominating conventions.

In all, the first round of the Post-ABC News tracking poll asked voters to evaluate the two candidates across 11 issues and attributes. Obama leads on all 11, with margins as high as 32 points on the question of who is the more optimistic of the two presidential hopefuls. He has double-digit leads on seven of the 11.

McCain, however, showed some improvement on several of the measures. What was a 31-point advantage for Obama on who better understands people's economic problems has been whittled to a 19-point advantage, with most of the change coming from independent white men. The shift coincides with McCain's decision to highlight "Joe the Plumber" as emblematic of how he says some Americans would be affected by his economic programs as compared with Obama's.

McCain also has narrowed Obama's still hefty advantage as the one who would do more to bring change to Washington; Obama leads 56 percent to 35 percent on this question, down from an advantage of 62 percent to 28 percent last week.

And for the first time in the campaign, the percentage of voters who said McCain mainly would continue to lead the country in the same direction as President Bush slipped below 50 percent; that shift came after McCain proclaimed forcefully in last week's debate that he would lead in a different direction. Voters are now split 48 percent to 49 percent on whether he offers change or would largely continue Bush's legacy.

On the ballot test, men divide evenly between Obama and McCain, while women support Obama by 58 percent to 39 percent. White men go heavily for McCain, but white women are split about evenly between the two.

Overall, McCain is up six points among white voters, while African Americans are nearly unanimous in their support for Obama. The senator from Illinois also wins 91 percent of Democrats, while 84 percent of Republicans back the senator from Arizona. McCain and Obama evenly split the votes of independents.

The Post-ABC national tracking poll started Oct. 16, the day after the final presidential debate, and will continue through Nov. 3. Each day's release includes the results of a multiple-night track -- a "rolling average" -- of interviews with approximately 450 randomly selected adults each day. This release reports the results from interviews conducted Thursday through Sunday night, with 1,366 likely voters. The results from the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins for subgroups are higher.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company