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.
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.
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.