By Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 26, 2008 5:11 PM
For John McCain to close the gap with Barack Obama over the final nine days of the campaign, he has to blunt the big advantage Obama has with voters on the central issue of the day, the nation's sagging economy.
In Sunday's Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll, Obama continues to have the edge on this central question, but at 11 points, it is his lowest of the month. It corresponds with his slimmest lead in the first full week of the poll: Among likely voters, 52 percent support Obama and 45 percent back McCain.
Those numbers are little different from previous results from the poll, which reports on a four-day rolling average of interviews with approximately 1,350 likely voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
Also in the new poll is a modest easing of voters' apprehension about the direction of the country: 13 percent of voters see the nation as headed in the right direction, a low number, but an increase from seven percent in a Post-ABC poll conducted in September just after the first of several steep declines on Wall Street.
The small bounce, though, has not loosened voters' focus on the economy, 52 percent of whom now call the economy their top voting concern. That number has been above the 50 percent-mark throughout the track.
Among "economy voters," Obama continues to hold a substantial lead, 61 percent to 36 percent, and those who believe the country has strayed onto the wrong path back him by nearly 20 points.
Asked which candidate is more trusted to handle the economy, however, 42 percent said McCain, which is the most to do so this month. McCain's small bump-up comes largely from men, who had shifted toward Obama on the issue as the economic crisis deepened. Now, however, men are divided about evenly between the two on the handling of the nation's finances with 48 percent favoring McCain's approach and 47 percent Obama's.
Simultaneously, McCain also holds his first, albeit a narrow six-point lead, among men on the vote question. Obama continues to lead by a wide margin among women.
With just nine days remaining before the election, for McCain to close the margin further would require convincing the dwindling number of "movable" voters to support the GOP ticket. Eleven percent of likely voters said they are undecided or could change their minds before Election Day.
Overall, about half of movable voters are political independents, and a slim majority consider themselves moderate ideologically. They are more somewhat more likely to be white than voters as a whole (about nine in 10 compared with about eight in 10 overall). Nearly a quarter (23 percent) are part of that classic swing group, white Catholics (a bit higher than the proportion of likely voters overall, 17 percent in this poll). About two in 10 said they will be casting a presidential ballot for the first time.
These uncommitted voters are even more focused on the economy than voters overall. Sixty-one percent said the economy would be the single most important issue for them come Election Day, but nearly two in 10 said they do not trust either candidate to do a better job managing it. And on the economy, they are divided: 43 percent for Obama and 38 percent for McCain.
Complicating the picture for McCain's team though, is that more than four in 10 of these movable voters already back him, so part of the challenge is to hang onto their support. Moreover, most in this category who do express a preference said the chance they could change their mind is pretty slim. And relatively few of these movable voters live in states where their votes could have an impact: Only about two in 10 live in states decided by five or fewer percentage points in 2004.
For complete data from the Washington Post-ABC News daily tracking Poll, visit www.washingtonpost.com/polls.