For all the focus on the economy as John McCain's greatest problem, there's another right behind it: George W. Bush.
More than seven in 10 Americans disapprove of Bush's job performance, near the 70-year record for disapproval he set earlier this month. McCain's struggled all year to distance himself from that long shadow – still a challenge with Election Day looming.
Fewer than half of likely voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll, 47 percent, think McCain would lead in a new direction; 50 percent instead say he'd mainly continue on Bush's path. McCain has not exceeded 48 percent "new direction" all year, at a time when dissatisfaction with the country's current course has hit record highs.
It matters: Among those who think McCain would lead in a new direction, 82 percent support him. But among those who think of him as Bush 2.0, 90 percent prefer Barack Obama instead – one of the starkest dividing lines between the two candidates.
Similarly, while McCain overwhelmingly is supported by the relatively few remaining Bush approvers, he loses Bush disapprovers – 72 percent of likely voters – by nearly a 3-1 margin, 71-27 percent. Even if he attracted every likely voter who approves of Bush, McCain would have to win at least a third of Bush disapprovers in order to catch Obama.
Obama continues to lead McCain by 52-44 percent in overall vote preference among likely voters, a stable race in ABC/Post data the last three weeks. Obama has reached or matched his highest support among men, whites, white men, married men and moderates in the latest results. McCain's at his best since July among evangelical white Protestants.
ISSUES – The economy swamps the issues list, cited by 53 percent as the single most important issue in their vote, with all other mentions in the single digits; the last election in which it dominated so heavily was 1992. McCain eroded Obama's lead in trust to handle the economy from 18 points last week to a low of 9 points earlier this week, but that stabilized yesterday, and it's a 12-point Obama lead on the economy now.
Obama leads in trust to handle the economy by 10 points among swing-voting independents, by 22 points among likely voters who say it's the single top issue in their vote, and by 61-35 percent among first-time voters.
Obama meanwhile has held the line on taxes in the face of a concerted McCain effort; the steady 51-41 percent Obama lead on taxes is the first for a Democrat since Bill Clinton's in 1992. On a third front pressed by McCain, the two remain essentially even in trust to handle an unexpected crisis; McCain had led by 17 points on this measure after his convention in early September.
On McCain's direction, 80 percent of Republicans think he'd go a different way from Bush, as do 53 percent of independents. But 77 percent of Democrats think not, as do 55 percent of moderates, about half in centrist groups such as suburbanites and married women and 52 percent in the most hotly contested battleground states.
CHANGE – As reported Thursday morning, after a year positioning himself as the change candidate, Obama owns the issue: Likely voters by 60-34 percent say he'd do more than McCain to bring needed change to Washington. That's roughly where they've been since March, with the exception of a 51-39 percent result just after the Republican convention, a gain for McCain that didn't hold.
That result is another that conjures up the 1992 election. Clinton held a 25-point lead over George H. W. Bush on who'd do the best job "bringing needed changes," almost identical to Obama's 26-point lead today.
On leadership overall, though, it's a far closer call: Likely voters divide, 49-46 percent, Obama-McCain, on who's the stronger leader. That's better for McCain than Obama's 56-39 percent lead on this question Oct. 11; but worse than McCain's best, a 53-40 percent lead back in March. McCain surely sought better given his campaign's focus on experience and judgment.
Beyond Republicans and conservatives, McCain does best on leadership with evangelical white Protestants (72 percent pick him as the stronger leader than Obama) and rural voters (59 percent). But it's closer in some other groups, such as whites (53 percent) and men (51 percent).
Views on change are more lopsided; just Republicans, conservatives and evangelical white Protestants pick McCain over Obama as best to bring needed change. Rural voters divide by 47-41 percent, Obama-McCain. Obama's preferred on change by 54 percent of whites, and, in the political center, by 58 percent of independents.
GROUPS – The tracking poll allows a look at some smaller groups in the likely voter population. Hispanics are one – 13 percent of all adults (including non-citizens), they account for 6 percent of likely voters, about their share of the turnout in 2004.
As in past years Hispanics are somewhat less engaged politically: While 83 percent of whites and 82 percent of blacks report being registered to vote, that declines to 67 percent of Hispanics. (Again that includes non-citizens, who are ineligible to register.) Moreover, among registereds, 63 percent of blacks and 59 percent of whites are following the election very closely; among Hispanics that declines to 45 percent.
At the same time, Hispanic likely voters are far more likely to identify themselves as first-time voters – 31 percent do so, compared with 19 percent of blacks and 9 percent of whites.
As far as vote preference, using aggregate tracking data over the past 14 nights, Hispanics favor Obama over McCain by a wide 69-28 percent, very much like their Democratic vs. Republican vote for House seats in 2006 (69-30 percent) and similar to Clinton's 72 percent support from Hispanics in 1996. Al Gore won 62 percent of Hispanics in 2000, John Kerry 58 percent in 2004, though a less-reliable 2004 exit poll figure of 53 percent often is reported.
A smaller group, Jews, accounts for just 2 percent of likely voters nationally; usually a Democratic group, they favor Obama over McCain by 70-29 percent, similar to John Kerry's 74-25 percent in 2004.
Among other groups, Obama's maintaining his large advantage, 63-36 percent, among first-time voters, who account for one in eight likely voters, roughly the same as their share in 2004. He does well in this group largely because they're disproportionately young, and young likely voters are among Obama's strongest supporters, at 64-33 percent. Among voters over 30, it's a 50-46 percent race.
BUSH – A final note on Bush shows the depths of his problems. Among all Americans just 24 percent approve of his job performance, a point from his low earlier this month and 2 points from the lowest in ABC/Post polls and Gallup polls before them since 1938, set by Harry Truman in 1952. Bush is at career-low approval in his own party, 55 percent among Republicans; a new low among independents, 18 percent approval; and has just 7 percent approval among Democrats, 2 points from his worst.
Bush's 18 percent approval rating in the political center, among independents, is striking; his father's career low among independents was 35 percent, Bill Clinton's 40 percent and Ronald Reagan's 45 percent.
Bush's unpopularity is associated with a decline in Republican allegiance in recent years – a factor in this year's election. In 2004, Democrats and Republicans each accounted for 37 percent of voters. In this poll, Democrats account for 36 percent of likely voters, Republicans, 29 percent.
METHODOLOGY:Interviews for this ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll were conducted by telephone Oct. 26-29, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,327 likely voters, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a 2.5-point error margin for the full sample. Question 9 was asked Oct. 28-29 among 673 likely voters; that result has a 4-point error margin. Question 35 was asked Oct. 29 among 430 adults; that result has a 4.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.