By Tim Craig and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 27, 2008
Barack Obama has opened up an eight-point lead over Republican John McCain in Virginia, and the Democrat is entering the final week of the campaign with several core advantages when it comes to turning out his supporters, according to a new Washington Post poll.
The survey highlights the challenges facing McCain and the GOP during the final stretch of the election, as Obama has made evident progress in the Old Dominion the past month.
By wide margins, Virginia voters think that Obama is the candidate who would do more to bring needed change to Washington, who understands the economic challenges people are facing and who is the more honest and trustworthy of the two rivals. Still, there remains widespread apprehension over whether the Democratic nominee would make a good commander in chief.
McCain's path to the White House is very difficult without Virginia's 13 electoral votes, and Obama now leads the senator from Arizona 52 percent to 44 percent in the new poll.
In a Washington Post-ABC News Virginia poll taken late last month, Obama clung to a slim 3 percentage-point edge among likely voters. As an example of the gains he has made since that poll, Obama is now tied with McCain among college-educated white men, overcoming what had been an almost 30-point deficit for the Democrat.
A Democratic presidential nominee has not carried the state since 1964, but Obama has amassed what Virginia Democrats see as the most comprehensive political organization in modern times for a statewide campaign.
Obama has opened almost 50 offices, dispatched more than 250 paid staffers and recruited thousands of volunteers to knock on doors and call voters across the state.
The poll indicates that Obama's staff and volunteers have made staggering gains in reaching out to Virginia's 5 million registered voters. More than half of all voters surveyed said they have been contacted in person, on the phone or by e-mail or text message about voting for Obama, far more than said so about McCain.
Obama's ground game is being supplemented with a highly energized base of supporters who could give him an advantage in the important get-out-the vote effort.
Seven in 10 Obama supporters said they are "very enthusiastic" about voting for him, an increase from the late September poll. By contrast, 39 percent are that keen on McCain's candidacy, a 6 percentage-point dip over that period.
Obama has an almost 2 to 1 advantage over McCain in Northern Virginia, surpassing even the 60 percent mark that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) racked up in the region during their successful campaigns in 2005 and 2006.
Obama is also performing far better elsewhere in Virginia than Democrats have done in recent state and federal elections. He and McCain each drew 48 percent of the vote outside Northern Virginia, a signal that Obama's repeated visits, as well as his multimillion-dollar advertising blitz, has softened the GOP base in the more rural parts of the state.
Part of Obama's late advantage can be traced to widespread voter unease about the economy, record low approval ratings for President Bush and a growing number of voters who have strongly negative perceptions of GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
Bush's approval rating has fallen by half since his reelection in 2004, when he carried Virginia by 262,000 votes, or about 8 percentage points. Today, 27 percent of registered voters in Virginia approve of Bush's job performance, closely mirroring his low nationwide approval rating.
Bush's unpopularity remains a central liability for McCain in Virginia; 53 percent of voters said the senator would lead the nation in the same direction as Bush has, and these voters overwhelmingly support Obama.
"McCain has Bush's bad attitude" Fred Woyach, 63, a systems engineer who lives in Centreville, said in a follow-up interview. "McCain doesn't get it."
Although McCain has been trying to distance himself from Bush in recent weeks, the number of voters linking the two has not budged since September's Post poll.
Palin also is dragging down McCain in Virginia, the poll indicates. Half of Virginia voters now have "strongly" or "somewhat" negative views of the Alaska governor, a 12 percentage-point increase from September.
Concerns about Palin, who is scheduled to campaign today in Fredericksburg and Leesburg, might be compounded by widespread apprehension about McCain's taking office at 72. That would make him the oldest person to be elected to a first term as president, and 48 percent of Virginia voters said they are uncomfortable about that.
Mirroring nationwide trends, the economy continues to be the dominant issue in Virginia. Fifty-one percent of voters say it is their top concern, making it far and away the election's No. 1 issue. These voters favor Obama by a wide margin.
Obama holds a 23-point advantage as the one who better understands the financial problems people are facing. He holds a similarly large lead on the question of whom voters trust to address health care concerns.
McCain also appears to be failing in his efforts to convince voters that Obama would raise taxes. Republicans in Virginia, a historically low tax state, have been successfully using the tax issue for decades. But the poll finds Obama with a 15-point advantage when voters are asked whom they trust more to handle tax policy.
McCain remains better positioned statewide to play up his experience on military and foreign issues, although Obama has made some progress in those areas.
Voters are about evenly split between McCain and Obama on handling Iraq policy and on terrorism (McCain has lost a clear edge on the latter). They are also split -- 48 percent to 48 percent -- as to which of the two is "the stronger leader." That closely matches last month's poll.
Obama, however, still has not cleared one important hurdle: Voters are split 50 to 47 percent on the question of whether he would make a good commander in chief. A slim majority of independent voters and almost 60 percent of veterans now think he would not be effective in that capacity. Overall, McCain has a 16-point lead among veterans.
In recent weeks, McCain and state and national Republicans have sought to slow Obama's momentum in Virginia by sending out a flurry of mailers and automated calls that try to link him to 1960s radical William Ayers.
"I honestly believe Obama is a socialist, a Chicago thug," said Donna Tilley, 58, who lives in Chesterfield County, outside Richmond.
But overall, the poll indicates that McCain's attacks on Obama's character do not appear to be working. Two-thirds of Virginia voters have a favorable impression of Obama. About half have a favorable view of McCain, but his unfavorable rating stands at 45 percent, which is 15 percentage points higher than Obama's. A month ago, about as many voters said McCain was the more honest and trustworthy as said so about Obama. Now, Obama has a 20-point lead on the question.
Obama holds a 17-point lead in Hampton Roads, a crucial area in Virginia elections, while McCain is narrowly ahead in the Richmond area and in the Shenandoah Valley and southwestern Virginia. Even in those areas, though, Obama is breaking the 40 percent mark.
Obama has solidified the Democratic base in Virginia, drawing almost universal support from African Americans and self-identified Democrats, and he has also made major inroads with white voters in Virginia. McCain is winning white voters by 12 points, but Bush carried them by 36 percentage points in 2004.
The poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 22 to 25 among a random sample of 1,026 Virginia adults, including 902 registered voters.
The results for the sample of 784 likely voters is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.