Obama Leads McCain by Eight But Doubts Loom, Raising Stakes

These standings are perhaps slightly better for Obama than last month (albeit within the polls' error margins). But he has improved in key swing voter groups. Within the registered voter population, Obama has a 49-40 percent lead among independents, a 52-43 percent lead among married women and runs competitively, 46-43 percent, among white Catholics.

While "swing voters" is an overused term, it does apply to these groups -- their allegiance shifts from election to election and they're big enough to tilt the balance.

In exit polls, white Catholics have gone with the winner in eight of the last eight elections, all by significant margins. Independents have gone with the winner in six of the last eight elections (one of them by just 2 points, the others all significant.) And married women have gone with the winner in four of the last four elections (although two of them were by just 1 point, not a statistically significant margin).

Gender Gap, Class Divisions

The gender gap is back in force in this survey; the race is a dead heat, 45-45 percent, among men who are registered to vote, vs. a 54-39 percent Obama lead among women (who are more apt to be Democrats). Registered whites favor McCain by 50-42 percent; 94 percent of blacks favor Obama. (Democratic presidential candidates customarily win nine in 10 blacks.)

Voters under 30 favor Obama by a huge 66-30 percent; his challenge, again, is turning them out. At the other end of the age spectrum, seniors (who do turn out reliably) divide by 45-40 percent, McCain-Obama.

Working-class whites (defined here as whites who lack a college degree) favor McCain by 50-41 percent -- as good for Obama as either Kerry or Al Gore's support in this group (they broke 61-38 percent for Bush in 2004, 57-40 percent in 2000).

A four-way trial heat, including independent Ralph Nader and Libertarian Bob Barr, doesn't make big changes: a 49-39 percent Obama-McCain race, with 5 percent for Nader and 2 percent for Barr, again among registered voters. (That assumes Nader and Barr are on the ballots in all 50 states, which is not a done deal.)

A Time for Change

As noted, 28 percent of adults say they could change their minds (or have no current preference), about the usual level of movable voters at this stage. Their numbers peak in the swing groups: Thirty-nine percent of white Catholics are movable, as are 35 percent of independents and 33 percent of married women.

But other groups also are among the most moveable: Forty-two percent of moderate or liberal Republicans, 36 percent of Democrats who supported Clinton in the primaries, 35 percent of moderates overall, 34 percent of whites, 31 percent of single men and 31 percent of under-30s.

Seniors are much less movable -- 22 percent. Indeed a list of the least movables is instructive as well; beyond seniors they include strong partisans. It's the movables, of course, where the campaigns will spend most of their persuasive powers. Among the stalwarts, the question is more one of turnout.

By the Issues

Rather than asking Americans their single top issue, as previous ABC/Post polls have done, respondents in this survey rated the importance of 17 issues individually. The economy and the related issue of gas prices and energy policy topped the list, called "extremely important" by 50 and 48 percent, respectively.

One useful aspect of this approach is to see which issues rate low in importance; they include some hotly debated and closely covered ones.

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