With their closing arguments approaching, John McCain has inched a bit closer to Barack Obama in trust to handle the economy. But the advantage remains Obama's.
It's the metric that matters most in voter sentiment: With recession setting in, 85 percent of likely voters in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say the country's seriously off on the wrong track, and 52 percent call the economy the top issue, dwarfing all others.
Likely voters by 53-42 percent trust Obama over McCain to handle the economy, an Obama lead that's not quite as large as his biggest advantage on the issue last week, 56-38 percent. McCain's 42 percent is his best in a month, and up from a low of 37 percent Oct. 11.
Head-to-head in voter preference, Obama holds a 52-45 percent lead over McCain among likely voters in interviews the last four days. Obama hasn't slipped below 50 percent support, nor McCain above 46 percent, since early September in ABC/Post polls.
Obama's 7-point lead is not significantly different from his biggest advantage last week, 11 points, 54-43 percent, given the margin of sampling error in these estimates. McCain's 4-point gain in trust to handle the economy, while slight, is statistically significant.
If some tightening in the horse race occurs this week, it wouldn't be surprising; in 1996, amid prime conditions for an incumbent re-election, Bill Clinton led by 19 points in an Oct. 27 ABC/Post poll; that closed to 11 points in the final week. Clinton won by 8.5.
ECONOMY – McCain's slight gain on the economy is largest among movable voters, those who haven't definitely made up their minds. At his lowest last week, 24 percent of movables preferred him on the economy; it's 38 percent now. After favoring Obama on the economy last week, movables now divide, with a sizable number not preferring either.
Among other groups, working-class whites have gone from a significant preference for Obama on the economy, 54-38 percent, to an even split, 49-45 percent. And McCain has shored up on the economy among married men, already one of his best support groups. Last week 45 percent of married men preferred him on the economy; it's 57 percent now.
McCain's moved up by 8 points among suburbanites in trust to handle the economy, from 40 percent to 48 percent. At the same time, Obama's advanced by 11 points on the economy among generally pro-Republican rural voters. And independents – customarily key swing voters – haven't moved significantly on the economy. Last week 54 percent preferred Obama; it's 51 percent now.
Even with the slight change overall, Obama's advantage on the economy remains the same as George H.W. Bush's 11-point lead over Michael Dukakis in trust to handle the economy, 51-40 percent, at the end of the 1988 election campaign. In 1992, when the economy as now was the central issue, Clinton led Bush in trust to handle it by 17 points.
TRACK – The track/direction result shows the hill in front of McCain. He leads easily among the few likely voters who think the country is headed in the right direction. But among the more than eight in 10 who think it's headed seriously off on the wrong track, Obama has a nearly 20-point advantage, 58-39 percent.
The number of likely voters saying the country's off on the wrong track is a bit below its peak, 91 percent on Oct. 11 – a record since polls started asking the question in 1973.