Barack Obama has ridden his theme of change to a clear advantage in the closing days of the 2008 presidential campaign, his lead in overall vote preference buttressed by his personal and policy ratings alike -- and above all his trust to handle the battered economy.
Obama leads John McCain by 53-44 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll, strong in the center and even encroaching on some Republican-leaning groups. Obama trails by 7 points among whites, for example -- a group John Kerry lost by 17.
That's because among whites focused most strongly on the economy, Obama leads.
Obama, notably, has survived the campaign with his personal popularity intact: Sixty-three percent of likely voters have a favorable opinion of him, steady at more than six in 10 since June. Fewer, 54 percent, see McCain favorably, after a race in which the tone of his campaign raised considerable criticism from likely voters.
Underscoring this difference, nearly half, 47 percent, have a "strongly" favorable opinion of Obama, compared with McCain's 30 percent. And in a longstanding gap, a remarkable 67 percent of Obama's supporters are very enthusiastic about his candidacy, compared with McCain's 41 percent.
Some last-minute narrowing is possible; Obama's advantage was somewhat smaller Monday night than in the previous three nights. But what risk remains for Obama is chiefly in his reliance on less certain voter groups, on lower-than-usual turnout by Republicans and on the final choices of the quintessential swing voters, independents.
Obama has better than a 2-1 lead, 67-30 percent, among young voters, and nearly as big an advantage among first-time voters. While their turnout is a question mark, Obama's built a cushion by encouraging early and absentee voting. Thirty-three percent of likely voters say they've already cast their ballots -- favoring Obama by 58-40 percent.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by 5 percentage points in this survey, a gap that's fluctuated in the past few weeks but always remained in the Democrats' favor. In 2004, Republican and Democratic voters were at parity; if more Republicans show up this time, it'd boost McCain.
At the same time, Obama's closing the campaign with a 14-point lead among swing-voting independents, his best since late September. Independents, though, have been unusually movable this year, ranging in just the past month from a dead heat to Obama's current lead.
These variables more than any other -- the partisanship of actual voters and the direction of the independent vote -- will spell the final margin.
Fifty percent of likely voters call the economy the single most important issue in their vote, far outstripping all others (health care and Iraq follow at 10 percent each).
Obama seized the advantage on the economy shortly after McCain's Sept. 15th comment that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," and hasn't let go since.
Obama leads McCain in trust to handle the economy, now by 54-40 percent. And among voters who call the economy their top issue Obama's edge is even larger.
These economy voters are partially responsible for Obama's competitiveness in some groups that usually favor Republicans. As noted, he leads McCain, by 53-45 percent, among whites who cite the economy as their top issue. Whites more focused on other issues favor McCain by a wide 59-38 percent.