John McCain's crossed back over the 50 percent threshold as a "safe" choice for president, but he's failed to push Barack Obama below it -- and when risk is off the table, the race reverts to Obama's advantage on issues and empathy alike.
Key among those is not just economic policy -- on which McCain's recent advance has stalled at a 10-point deficit in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll -- but also in understanding Americans' economic problems. On that measure, empathy rather than policy, Obama still leads by 18 points, unchanged from last week.
Obama's done better still on economic empathy, peaking at a 31-point lead Oct. 11.
But his current 56-38 percent advantage at the kitchen-table level still represents one of McCain's greatest challenges. And it leaves no wonder that Obama's half-hour primetime television advertisement tonight includes footage of him -- where else -- at a kitchen table.
In the safe/risky measure, 54 percent call Obama a safe choice and 53 percent say the same of McCain, who had slipped to 49 percent "safe" Oct. 11. McCain had held an advantage on this in June, when 57 percent called him safe vs. 50 percent for Obama.
Related to the "safe/risky" gauge, Obama's even with McCain in trust to handle an unexpected crisis. And Obama is +11 in trust to handle taxes, as noted yesterday he's the first Democrat to lead on taxes since Bill Clinton in 1992.
Obama leads McCain in vote preference by 52-44 percent among likely voters in the last four nights of interviews.
The race has been essentially static in ABC/Post tracking polls since Oct. 19: Obama between 52 and 54 percent, McCain between 43 and 45 percent.
Fight for the Independent Vote
Contrary to some recent campaign spin, Obama and McCain are doing equally well in their own parties -- 88 percent of Republicans for McCain, 89 percent of Democrats for Obama.
Obama's benefiting both from lower Republican allegiance and, also critical, a 10-point lead among independents.
Obama's support is perhaps slightly weaker than it's been among white women, but slightly better among white men; both groups now split 51-45 percent, McCain-Obama.
Obama's 45 percent ties his best to date among whites; his support grows to a 2-1 lead among Hispanics and 95 percent among blacks.
Obama's 2-1 advantage among moderates, 63-32 percent, is his best of the campaign.
He and McCain are about even among white Catholics, a traditional swing voter group; and close among married women, 50-46 percent McCain-Obama, another possible swing group.
Voters Weigh Risks in Presidential Vote
Views of the candidates as safe or risky cut sharply to vote preference, but especially for Obama.
Among likely voters who see him as safe, 89 percent support him; among those who see McCain as safe, McCain gets 74 percent support.
While partisanship is a strong factor, there are others.
Men by 57-42 percent see McCain as safe, but are divided on Obama, 50-50. Women look exactly the opposite; they see Obama as safe by 57-42 percent, but divide on McCain, 50-49.
Independents divide evenly on whether Obama's safe or risky, 49-50 percent, while they see McCain as safe by 57-41 percent.
That's even though independents currently favor Obama in their vote preference, 52-42 percent. This likely is the group in which McCain's trying to use the risk argument to make inroads.
Eleven percent of likely voters overall remain movable, steady the past week; these are either outright undecided (just 2 percent) or have a preference but haven't definitely made up their minds (9 percent more). Currently they divide by 38-31 percent between McCain and Obama, with the rest unsure.
The campaigns may covet them -- but they're a tough sell.
First off, they're not all that movable.
Movables split about evenly between being highly movable -- either undecided or saying there's a "good chance" they'll change their minds (6 percent) -- and those who say it's "pretty unlikely" they'll change, 5 percent.
They're also less partisan and less engaged.
Movability peaks among independents who don't lean toward either main political party; a quarter in this group are movable, 19 percent highly so.
Movability also peaks among all independents (17 percent movable, 11 percent highly so), moderates (15 percent movable, 9 percent highly), white Catholics (15 percent/8 percent) and white mainline Protestants (15 percent/9 percent) -- all groups less rooted in partisanship than some of their counterparts.
Moreover, just 45 percent of movables are following the campaign very closely, compared with 68 percent of likely voters who've definitely decided on a candidate.
That makes their attention hard to get -- something Obama may be trying to achieve with his prime time advertisement tonight.
McCain vs. Obama: The Likeability Factor
As reported separately Wednesday morning, Obama and McCain alike have made strides since June in acquainting likely voters with their positions. But for Obama's supporters it looks much more likely to matter.
More than three-quarters of likely voters feel they know at least a good amount about both candidates' positions on the issues, up 18 points for McCain and 21 points for Obama since the general election campaign got underway.
But the importance likely voters place on those issue positions is not the same. Forty-five percent say the candidates' positions on the issues are more important than their personal qualities -- and they're a very broadly pro-Obama group, favoring him by 67-30 percent.
Fifty-three percent, however, say either that the candidates' personal qualities are more important, or that the two are equally important (42 and 11 percent, respectively) -- and this group favors McCain by 14 points, 55-41 percent.
That may be what McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, had in mind when he told The Washington Post in early September that what mattered in the race wasn't issues but the voters' "composite view" of the candidates.
From McCain's perspective that makes sense; from Obama's, not so much.
Another approach to the data reinforces that conclusion.
Among likely voters who feel they know at least a good amount about Obama's positions, he leads by 56-40 percent, a 16-point advantage. Among those who know at least that much about McCain, it's a closer 51-46 percent McCain-Obama race.
Familiarity therefore seems to work for Obama in a way it doesn't for McCain -- a result that underscores the McCain campaign's efforts to portray Obama as an unknown quantity, and the Obama campaign's heavy push on increasing voters' familiarity and comfort level with their candidate.
Election is Over for 10-Percent of Voters
Finally, there are those for whom the election already is over.
ABC/Post tracking data so far find that 10 percent of likely voters have voted, which comports with tallies of the early vote so far (15 million out of, say, 130 million voters is 12 percent).
Vote preference among these early voters is 59-40 percent, Obama-McCain, widening to 68-31 percent in the 16 battleground states and 71-28 percent in the eight toss-ups states as designated by ABC News' Political Unit (Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia).
Nationally an additional 25 percent say they will vote between now and Election Day -- for a total intended early/absentee vote of 35 percent, compared with about 22 percent in 2004 and 15 percent in 2000.
Early voters (including those who intend to do it) are not disproportionately first-time voters. They are disproportionately Westerners, black, urban and single women, all pro-Obama groups; and seniors, who divide more evenly.
METHODOLOGY:Interviews for this ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll were conducted by telephone Oct. 25-28, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,316 likely voters, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a 2.5-point error margin for the full sample. Questions 7a and 32 were asked Oct. 27-28 among 656 likely voters; those results have a 4-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.