Barack Obama has seized the reins of economic discontent, vaulting over John McCain's convention gains by persuading voters he both better understands their economic troubles and can better address them.
Concerns about the economy have spiked since the global financial crisis roiled the stock market and sparked a proposed government bailout.
Fifty-three percent of registered voters in this new ABC News/Washington Post poll call the economy the single most important issue in the election, up 12 points in two weeks to an extraordinary level of agreement.
The public is cool to the bailout itself, underscoring economic uncertainty.
Eight in 10 are worried about the economy's future, half of them very worried. Personal concern runs high as well; six in 10 are worried about their family's finances. And 83 percent say the country's seriously off on the wrong track, back within a point of its record high -- set just this June -- in polls dating to early 1970s.
All these work for Obama.
He's recovered to a 14-point lead over McCain in trust to handle the economy, and leads by 13 points specifically in trust to deal with the meltdown of major financial institutions.
Obama leads by more, 24 points, 57-33 percent, in better understanding the public's economic problems.
Tellingly, after trailing by 17 points, he's pulled even with McCain in trust to handle a major crisis. And Obama holds wide margins in vote preference among likely voters most concerned about the economy.
More economic worry, plus an Obama lead among those who express it, spells a lead for the Democrat: In a head-to-head-match-up he's now supported by 52 percent of likely voters vs. McCain's 43 percent, the first significant advantage for either candidate among likely voters in ABC/Post polls.
Add third-party candidates Ralph Nader and Bob Barr and it's essentially the same, 51-43 percent.
Obama Takes Lead Amidst Economic Worries
The contest has shifted from a 49-47 percent McCain-Obama race immediately after the Republican convention.
McCain's bounce -- on individual issues and attributes as well as in overall preference -- is gone.
The immediate question for Obama: Whether he can hang on to his newfound gains through the first presidential debate Friday night.
Attention to the contest, meanwhile, is remarkable. Ninety-one percent of registered voters are following it closely, 55 percent "very" closely – both highs in ABC/Post polls dating to the 1988 presidential election.
Barack Obama Takes Lead, Reclaims 'Change' Mantle
McCain progressed at his convention in part by encroaching on Obama's mantle of "change," invigorating his base, improving on enthusiasm and gaining ground among white women, a movable group all summer, by selecting Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Those have faded.
In June Obama led by 32 points lead in "trust to bring needed change to Washington"; McCain whittled that down to 12 points by Sept. 7. Today it's back to a 25-point Obama advantage, 58-33 percent.
Palin's favorability rating has been trimmed from 58 percent to 52 percent, falling farthest in a key swing voter group, white Catholics; it's also down notably among white college graduates, independents, moderates and white women.
The number of McCain supporters who describe themselves as "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy rose 18 points to 46 percent after his convention. Today it's subsided to 34 percent, while a steady and far greater number of Obama's supporters remain very enthusiastic about their candidate, 62 percent.
In a related challenge, concern about the candidates' age is up -- 48 percent, a new high, call it an important factor in their vote, and it hurts McCain: Those who call it important favor Obama by 2-1, 63-32 percent, compared with a 12-point McCain advantage among those who don't see his age as an issue.
Far fewer -- 16 percent, a new low -- say race is an important issue, and that view does not meaningfully impact vote preferences.
White Women Back to Even Support for McCain, Obama
Then there are white women.
They've been a changeable group this year, shifting, for example, from +7 Obama to +11 McCain among likely voters from late August (before the conventions) to early September.
They're back to a dead heat now, precisely where they were in mid-July. But the fact that they've backed McCain by as much as a 16-point margin (in June) keeps them a group to watch.
There are other significant changes in key swing voter groups -- so identified because their allegiance swings and they're big enough to make a difference.
White Catholics have shifted from a broad post-convention preference for McCain, 57-38 percent, to a dead heat.
Independents, likewise, from +10 for McCain two weeks ago to +14 for Obama now. And married women, +11 for McCain Sept. 7, are +5 for Obama now.
Among other changes, a swing to McCain in the Midwest -- a 54-43 percent McCain advantage Sept. 7, also has been reversed; Obama's now up there, 53-40 percent.
McCain, Obama Presidential Contest Could See More Change
More change is entirely possible.
Seventeen percent of likely voters remain movable, meaning they haven't definitely made up their minds. And movability peaks among some of the swing groups that indeed have been moving: Twenty-eight percent of white Catholics, 25 percent of independents and 23 percent of Midwesterners are movable. Some of their numbers have changed preferences; some well could again.
Swing groups, however, haven't been the only ones to move.
There also have been sharp changes in voter preference among other groups, including postgraduates, independent women and non-evangelical white Protestants. And it's tightened among white men as well – 54-40 percent for McCain, compared with 62-34 percent after the conventions.
It's the Economy...Again
Among election issues, the economy is in the driver's seat.
A near-unanimous 91 percent of likely voters say it's in bad shape -- not so good (33 percent) or poor (58 percent). The distinction matters: Among those who say the economy's merely not good, McCain leads by 61-34 percent. Those who say it's poor favor Obama, 69-26 percent.
Other economic views cut similarly. Among people who say the economy's the most important issue, Obama leads by 61-35 percent; their rising number, again, boosts him. Among those who pick all other issues combined, McCain leads, 54-42 percent.
Obama leads by 61-35 percent among people who are worried about the economy's future and by 73-22 percent among those who are very worried; among those who aren't worried, McCain's favored by 79-15 percent. Similarly, those worried about their own family's finances favor Obama by 2-1; not worried, McCain by 21 points.
In another measure, 51 percent of registered voters say the economy's in a serious long-term decline, vs. 45 percent who say it's "a normal downturn that will correct itself before too long." This was a little worse before the 1992 election – 56-37 percent. It, too, strongly cuts to vote.
New Poll Finds Shift to Obama on Iraq, Honesty
The shift toward Obama is not limited to economic issues; as he's gained the upper hand on the pre-eminent factor, others have moved along as well. McCain had led by 10 points in trust to handle the Iraq war; now they're essentially even (Obama +4). McCain's 20-point lead on terrorism is now an insignificant 4 points, the closest of the campaign.
And they're now even in trust to handle international affairs, back to July's result.
On personal attributes, Obama's turned a scant 6-point deficit on honesty and trustworthiness into an 11-point advantage, while the two remain essentially even when it comes to who's the stronger leader.
A shortfall continues for Obama in being seen as ready to serve as commander-in-chief of the military; fewer than half, 48 percent, think he'd do that well, compared with 72 percent for McCain.
These are unchanged, as is the fact that more say McCain knows enough about world affairs to serve effectively (72 percent) than say the same about Obama (56 percent).
Nonetheless still a majority says Obama passes that hurdle, similar to the 2000 election, when far more said Al Gore knew enough about world affairs (73 percent) as said the same about George W. Bush (54 percent). For Bush it was enough.
Race and the Race
A few more groups are worth a look.
Obama continues to enjoy nearly unanimous support from African-Americans, 96 percent, while McCain's edge among whites is a slight 50-45 percent. Obama continues to do best with under-30s, but the contest is a dead heat among seniors.
Among likely voters, Obama's winning 77 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who'd supported Hillary Clinton for the nomination. That hasn't changed, but nonetheless among all leaned Democrats Obama's got 88 percent support, about even with McCain's 87 percent from leaned Republicans.
Partisanship has not significantly changed.
Among registered voters 38 percent in this poll identify themselves as Democrats, 28 percent as Republicans and 29 percent as independents. That's very similar to what it was in the last ABC News/Washington Post poll -- 36-28-32 percent -- the previous one, and indeed the average all year, 38-28-30 percent.
What's changed, instead, is the preference among independents, one of those swing voter groups to watch closely in the next 40 days.
METHODOLOGY: This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 19-22, 2008, among a random sample of 1,082 adults, including an oversample of African Americans (weighted to their correct share of the national population), for a total of 163 black respondents. Results among the 916 registered voters surveyed have a 3-point error margin; among the 780 likely voters, 3.5-points. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.