Absentee and early voting are changing the face of voting in America: Three in 10 likely voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll say they'll vote early, nearly double what it was eight years ago.
The trend, which may impact campaign strategies in terms of closing arguments and get-out-the-vote efforts, could assist Barack Obama: He leads John McCain by 26 points among likely voters who say they'll get it done early, vs. a closer 7-point margin among those who plan to hold off until Election Day.
Other dynamics are at play.
This poll also finds much broader comfort with Obama's race than with McCain's age. High-level enthusiasm among Obama's supporters exceeds two-thirds for the first time, an unusual level. And most critically, Obama leads by 18 points in trust to handle the economy, the central issue in the contest.
Fifty-one percent of likely voters call the economy the single most important issue in their vote, far above any others (next are health care, 10 percent, and the Iraq war, 8 percent).
And economy voters favor Obama by 63-34 percent, continuing an advantage he's held since summer but expanded as the global economic crisis loomed, then struck.
The contest overall stands at 54-43 percent between Obama and McCain among likely voters, essentially stable since a Sept. 22 ABC/Post poll, with the exception of a slightly narrower result Sept. 29.
Early Birds Rock the Vote
As noted, there's a much broader 61-35 percent Obama lead among those who intend to vote early, vs. 51-44 percent among traditional Election-Day voters.
One reason is that early voting is most popular by far in the West, where a majority of voters, 54 percent, say they'll vote early or absentee. Obama's lead among all likely voters in the West, 61-35 percent, is his largest in ABC/Post polls to date.
Absentee and early voting decline from there -- a still-high 37 percent in the South, but 19 percent in the Midwest and just 9 percent in the Northeast.
Early voting is higher among non-whites than whites (42 vs. 27 percent), among city dwellers than in rural areas (37 vs. 21 percent) and rises to 48 percent of the most highly educated adults, those with post-graduate degrees -- again all strong Obama groups.
McCain's more competitive in one other early-voting group, seniors, among whom 37 percent say they'll vote early or absentee, compared with 29 percent of younger adults.
The overall number of likely voters who plan to vote absentee or early, 31 percent, compares to an early/absentee vote of about 22 percent in 2004 and a bit fewer than 16 percent in 2000.
McCain's Age a Bigger Factor Than Obama's Race
The dynamics of age and race are a continuing undercurrent in the election, and one in which Obama continues to fare better.
Ninety percent of likely voters say they're comfortable with his being the first African-American president, 76 percent "entirely" comfortable. But they divide 50-49 percent on comfort with McCain taking office at age 72 -- and on that just 30 percent are entirely comfortable.
On the flip side, while 5 percent are entirely uncomfortable with Obama as the first black president, more, 26 percent, are entirely uncomfortable with McCain's age -- about what it's been recently, but up from 19 percent just after the Republican convention.
These views are highly partisan.
But independents divide 50-50 in their comfort with McCain's age, vs. 88-9 percent in their comfort with Obama's race.
McCain continues to be challenged, as well, by the shadow of George W. Bush: After dipping under 50 percent for the first time earlier this week, the number of likely voters who think McCain would lead the country in the same direction as Bush is back to 52 percent.
Better for McCain is his support in one particular affinity group, military veterans; he leads among them by 54-43 percent. Veterans, however, account for just 12 percent of likely voters.
Attacks Fall Flat on Campaign Trail
As reported separately Thursday morning, McCain's criticisms of Obama in terms of ideology aren't showing progress, and on ethics Obama's actually improved.
Likely voters by 49-39 percent pick Obama over McCain as having "higher personal and ethical standards"; that's moved from an even split in an ABC/Post poll at the start of their race last May.
Forty percent call Obama too liberal, but that's essentially unchanged since summer, and a majority, 55 percent, instead says he's "about right" ideologically. Fewer, meantime, say McCain's where they'd like him to be ideologically – 42 percent.
McCain, Obama in Homestretch of White House Battle
Part of McCain's challenge is that he comes in for some criticism on both sides of the ideological spectrum.
Thirty-eight percent of likely voters see him as too conservative, much like the 40 percent who call Obama too liberal. But an additional 15 percent see McCain as too liberal, while just 2 percent call Obama too conservative.
In a can't-buy-a-break result, 19 percent of conservatives call McCain too liberal, and an additional 11 percent of conservatives say he's too conservative; that leaves 65 percent who say he's about right. By contrast, 90 percent of liberals say Obama's about right ideologically, as do 64 percent of moderates.
Just 37 percent of moderates say McCain's in the right place ideologically.
METHODOLOGY:Interviews for this ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll were conducted by telephone Oct. 19-22, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,335 likely voters, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a 2.5-point error margin for the full sample. Results on questions 2a and 20 were conducted Oct. 21-22 among 667 likely voters; those results have a 4-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.