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Economic Fears Give Obama Clear Lead Over McCain in Poll

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 24, 2008; Page A01

Turmoil in the financial industry and growing pessimism about the economy have altered the shape of the presidential race, giving Democratic nominee Barack Obama the first clear lead of the general-election campaign over Republican John McCain, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national poll.

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Just 9 percent of those surveyed rated the economy as good or excellent, the first time that number has been in single digits since the days just before the 1992 election. Just 14 percent said the country is heading in the right direction, equaling the record low on that question in polls dating back to 1973.

More voters trust Obama to deal with the economy, and he currently has a big edge as the candidate who is more in tune with the economic problems Americans now face. He also has a double-digit advantage on handling the current problems on Wall Street, and as a result, there has been a rise in his overall support. The poll found that, among likely voters, Obama now leads McCain by 52 percent to 43 percent. Two weeks ago, in the days immediately following the Republican National Convention, the race was essentially even, with McCain at 49 percent and Obama at 47 percent.

As a point of comparison, neither of the last two Democratic nominees -- John F. Kerry in 2004 or Al Gore in 2000 -- recorded support above 50 percent in a pre-election poll by the Post and ABC News.

Last week's near-meltdown in the financial markets and the subsequent debate in Washington over a proposed government bailout of troubled financial institutions have made the economy even more important in the minds of voters. Fully 50 percent called the economy and jobs the single most important issue that will determine their vote, up from 37 percent two weeks ago. In contrast, just 9 percent cited the Iraq war as their most important issue, its lowest of the campaign.

But voters are cool toward the administration's initial efforts to deal with the current crisis. Forty-seven percent said they approve of the steps taken by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve to stabilize the financial markets, while 42 percent said they disapprove.

Anxiety about the economic situation is widespread. Just over half of the poll respondents -- 52 percent -- believe the economy has moved into a serious long-term decline. Eight in 10 are concerned about the overall direction of the economy, nearly three-quarters worry about the shocks to the stock market, and six in 10 are apprehensive about their own family finances.

Two weeks ago, McCain held a substantial advantage among white voters, including newfound strength with white women. In the face of bad economic news, the two candidates now run about evenly among white women, and Obama has narrowed the overall gap among white voters to five percentage points.

Much of the movement has come among college-educated whites. Whites without college degrees favor McCain by 17 points, while those with college degrees support Obama by 9 points. No Democrat has carried white, college-educated voters in presidential elections dating back to 1980, but they were a key part of Obama's coalition in the primaries.

The political climate is rapidly changing along with the twists and turns on Wall Street, and it remains unclear whether recent shifts in public opinion will fundamentally alter the highly competitive battle between McCain and Obama. About two in 10 voters are either undecided or remain "movable" and open to veering to another candidate. Nevertheless, the close relationship between voters' focus on the economy and their overall support for the Democratic nominee has boosted Obama.

Among white voters, economic anxiety translates into greater support for Obama. He is favored by 54 percent of whites who said they are concerned about the direction of the economy, but by just 10 percent of those who are less worried.

The survey also found that the strong initial public reaction to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, has cooled somewhat. Overall, her unfavorable rating has gone up by 10 points in the past two weeks, from 28 percent to 38 percent.


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