High hopes and big doubts face Barack Obama and John McCain alike as they head into their critical convention weeks, with most voters favorably inclined toward both candidates -- but with many also expressing serious reservations about them.
Nearly half of registered voters, 47 percent, continue to think Obama lacks the experience it takes to serve effectively as president, a lot to lose on this basic qualification. McCain leads him by 2-1 margins as more knowledgeable on world affairs and as better-suited to be commander in chief, and has moved ahead in trust to handle international relations.
And Obama has not improved his standing among former Hillary Clinton supporters; while 70 percent of them are for him in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, that leaves three in 10 either undecided or for McCain. That's surely a group Obama will seek to win over in Denver this week.
McCain faces his own challenges: Fifty-seven percent think he would lead in the same direction as the heavily unpopular George W. Bush. Forty-five percent are uncomfortable with a president of McCain's age. (He turns 72 on Friday.) He's seen by a wide margin as the less optimistic of the two, and as running a more negative campaign.
Yet the candidates have strong suits as well as weaker ones, and notably, about six in 10 registered voters have favorable views of both of them: Sixty-two percent favorable for Obama, 59 percent for McCain. That's the most basic measure of a public figure's popularity, and it suggests that each still has a clear opportunity to make his case.
As in past elections, vice presidential choice is one factor that seems unlikely to have much effect. Thirteen percent in this poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, said they would be more apt to support Obama if he picked Joe Biden, as announced Saturday; but about as many, 10 percent, said it would make them less likely to support Obama -- and 75 percent said it would not make a difference. Vice presidential choices have not had a significant, consistent effect on presidential preference in past years.
Little has changed in basic standings from last month's ABC/Post poll, with single digits dividing the two: Obama is now favored by 49 percent of registered voters to McCain's 43 percent, and among likely voters it's a similar 49-45 percent contest.
Obama has ranged from +1 to +5 among registered voters in 10 other national polls completed last week. This survey has anywhere from 3 to 11 points fewer "undecided" voters than those; this can simply reflect polling technique. At the same time, plenty of registered voters -- 27 percent -- remain movable, meaning they are either undecided or say they might change their minds. Movables currently divide evenly, 37-36 percent, between Obama and McCain. They are a prime target for both campaigns.
Obama continues to hold the edge in enthusiasm: Fifty-two percent of his supporters are "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy, vs. 28 percent of McCain's supporters for their candidate. Similarly, among all registered voters, Obama is seen "strongly" favorably by 37 percent, 12 points better than McCain.
Obama's favorable ratings are better than either John Kerry's (56 percent) or Al Gore's (52 percent, in Gallup polls) before their conventions in 2004 and 2000, respectively, or Bush's 54 percent in 2004. Bush had a 64 percent favorable rating, much like Obama's today, in 2000.
Again, though, Obama might be expected to have a greater advantage against McCain, given his party's current popularity: Fifty-eight percent of registered voters express a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, compared with 47 percent who see the Republican Party favorably. And the Democrats now lead by 36-26 percent among registered voters in partisan-self-identification, with the rest independents.
These reflect the impact of Bush's unpopularity on his party; just 30 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, while 66 percent disapprove. That creates a challenge for McCain, who needs to weave a path between the core Republicans who still support Bush and the sizable majority of Americans who don't. Among registered voters who think McCain will continue in Bush's direction, just 17 percent support him.
Both candidates, even with their favorable ratings, also face a deeply disgruntled public. Given the struggling economy and the unpopular Iraq war, 78 percent of Americans say the country's headed off on the wrong track, the highest pre-convention reading since its 83 percent in 1992, the year Bush's father was voted out of office. The question today is the extent to which dissatisfaction with the president, the economy, the war and the country's direction sticks to McCain. Obama, doubtless, will be wielding a roll of tape.
Tensions with Russia are significant, with 63 percent saying they are concerned about the possibility of a new cold war and 53 percent calling it an unfriendly country. McCain may seek to turn that to his advantage; last month he and Obama were rated about evenly in trust to handle international affairs; today it's a 51-43 percent McCain edge.
But it's a closer 46-41 percent on handling Russia itself, and the two are even in trust to handle Iraq, meaning McCain's general advantage in international experience doesn't necessarily translate into preference on some specific issues.
But Obama might be expected to do better on Iraq, since he's clearly the more anti-war candidate, and 63 percent of Americans continue to say the war was not worth fighting. Fifty percent, in another measure, say the United States is making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq, the most since the capture of Saddam Hussein but hardly a full-throated endorsement of McCain's positive assessment.
Nonetheless, McCain still leads, by 52-38 percent, in trust to handle the U.S. campaign against terrorism more broadly, and by 52-41 percent in trust to handle an "unexpected major crisis" -- both again underscoring the extent to which he is likely to promote himself as a steady hand in a dangerous world.
Indeed a key differentiator is whether voters are more focused on "strength and experience" or a "new direction and new ideas." Registered voters divide closely, 47-44 percent, between the two, the former heavily for McCain, the latter even more heavily for Obama.
Obama, meanwhile, continues to lead in trust to handle the economy, 50-39 percent, and it's the No. 1 issue by a larger-than-ever margin. Forty-three percent volunteer it as the most important issue in their vote, a high level of agreement on an open-ended question. Fourteen percent cite the Iraq War -- continuing a downward path since last fall, when it dominated the agenda -- with all other "top issue" mentions in the single digits.
Obama also leads in trust to handle social issues such as abortion and gay civil unions, albeit by a smaller margin than last month, and has a slight edge on energy policy. The two are ranked evenly on Iraq and taxes, and McCain's improved on immigration policy.
McCain does slightly better on consistency, but Obama continues to lead him on a variety of other personal attributes: Would stand up to special interests, 53-32 percent; understands the problems of people like you, 49-36 percent (a bit less of a margin than last month); would work in a bipartisan way, 49-37 percent; and best represents your personal values, 50-43 percent. They're close on "stronger leader" -- 49-44 percent, Obama-McCain, an improvement for Obama -- and run evenly on who's more honest and trustworthy.
Obama's single biggest advantage is on being seen as "more optimistic," a 64-28 percent lead over McCain and a potentially important one, given the generally better performance of sunnier candidates. Additionally, 48 percent say McCain has spent more time attacking his opponent than addressing the issues; fewer, 29 percent, say Obama has mainly spent his time going negative.
As noted, a substantial 45 percent say they're uncomfortable with the notion of McCain taking office at age 72, including 20 percent who are entirely uncomfortable with it. Far fewer express discomfort with the idea of Obama becoming the first African-American president -- 11 percent, with 6 percent entirely so.
Regardless of popular buzz about various groups du jour, there are few true swing voter groups; they include independents, white Catholics and, arguably, married women. Among two of them the race is close: Among registered voters, independents divide by 45-43 percent between Obama and McCain; married women, 48-44 percent.
But there's a wider gap -- a 50-39 percent McCain advantage -- among white Catholics. That should be disconcerting to the Obama campaign, since white Catholics have voted for the winner in each of the last eight presidential elections. And even in the absence of data demonstrating that affinity with a vice presidential nominee moves votes, it could suggest one possible line of thinking in Obama's camp: Biden is Catholic.
Among whites overall, McCain has a scant 49-43 percent edge; Bush won whites by wider margins in 2004 and 2000 alike. Obama's winning support from 88 percent of blacks -- customary for a Democratic presidential candidate -- and six in 10 Hispanics.
There's a pronounced gender gap in the contest, with a 50-41 percent McCain advantage among men, but a wider 55-37 percent Obama lead among women (better than Kerry's in 2004). Indeed Obama leads among white women, 50-42 percent (Kerry lost them), while McCain has wide a 57-35 percent advantage among white men. Women are more apt than men to be Democrats.
While much was made in the primaries of Obama's relative weakness among working-class whites, he's actually doing better in this group than among better-off whites. Whites with less than $50,000 in household incomes split 49-40 percent toward Obama; those with $50,000-$100,000 income divide evenly, and those with higher incomes go broadly for McCain, 60-37 percent.
Obama continues to do best with younger voters, whose turnout is less reliable. In a related result, among registered voters under 50, 56 percent think Obama has enough experience for the job; among those over 50, 52 percent think he does not.
One likely question during the campaign is whether Obama did himself any damage by not picking Clinton as his running mate. On one hand, 32 percent of registered voters say that would have made them more likely to support him, vs. 20 percent less likely -- a bit of a differential. They are disproportionately former Clinton supporters, staying true to their preferred candidate for the top slot. But if it doesn't help Obama with this group, the Biden pick also looks not to have hurt: Fifteen percent of former Clinton supporters say his v.p. choice makes them more likely to support Obama, 11 percent less likely, with 70 percent saying it makes no difference.
Consistent with his continued challenges harvesting former Clinton supporters, Obama is losing some of his base: Seventy-nine percent of self-identified Democrats are supporting him, with 14 percent for McCain and 7 percent undecided. Obama will want to reel those undecideds in; Kerry and Gore each won more than 85 percent within their own party.
At the same time, McCain is seeing defections as well: Thirteen percent of Republicans are backing Obama. There are fewer Republicans out there this year; the trick for McCain is to keep his base motivated while also appealing to the center. But the trick for Obama -- as it's long been for any presidential candidate -- is essentially the same.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 19-22, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,108 adults, including an oversample of African Americans (weighted to their correct share of the national population), for a total of 201 black respondents. Results among registered voters have a 3-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.