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.
Economy Top Issues for Voters Choosing Between Obama, McCain
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.
Drilling down, Obama trails by just 7 points among white men and 6 points among white women -- groups that Kerry lost by 25 points and 11 points, respectively, in 2004.
Again, that relies in large part on Obama's relatively strong showing among white men (Obama +5) and white women (Obama +11) who name the economy as their top voting issue.
Similarly, Obama has an unusual 4-point edge among mainline or non-evangelical white Protestants, a group George W. Bush won by 11 points in 2004.
The reason is the same: Among mainline white Protestants who cite the economy as their top issue, Obama leads McCain by a wide 59-38 percent. Those who pick other issues favor McCain, 55-41 percent.
Results are similar among white Catholics, married women, married men, seniors, working-class and middle-class whites: In each of these groups, Obama does far better among those who say the economy's the issue driving their vote.
Indeed, even among evangelical white Protestants, one of McCain's single best groups, those focused on the economy are twice as apt to support Obama, 29 percent vs. 14 percent. And Obama wins 16 percent support from Republicans who cite the economy as their top issue, compared with 7 percent from those who don't.
McCain's also had no traction on taxes, "Joe the Plumber" or no; Obama's held a steady lead, now 9 points, in trust to handle them -- the first Democrat to lead on taxes since Bill Clinton's victory in the economy-driven election of 1992.
And Obama's withstood McCain's questions about his readiness; the two remain about even in trust to handle a crisis, 49-46 percent, Obama-McCain.
Other measures across the three weeks of this ABC/Post tracking poll have indicated Obama's ability to clear the "experience" hurdle; 55 percent say he's experienced enough to serve effectively as president and 56 percent call him a "safe" rather than "risky" choice for president – more than the 51 percent who say so of McCain.
Bush, Palin & Age Drag on McCain
McCain's had more difficulties clearing his hurdles.
Fewer than half last week, 47 percent, thought he would lead the country in a different direction than Bush, a problem given Bush's 23 percent approval rating. Never in the campaign has McCain managed to cross the 50 percent mark on offering a new direction.
As reported Monday morning, while 21 percent call the race of the candidates an issue in their vote, more, 48 percent call the candidates' age an issue -- and concern about age works against McCain in a way that concern about race does not.
Age concerns also exacerbate the Palin problem; 44 percent of all likely voters say her presence on the GOP ticket makes them less likely to support McCain. That's risen sharply since September -- and among those concerned about the age of the candidates, it jumps to 61 percent.
Obama leads among men and women alike in this poll, with no significant gender gap; that's a change from the last three elections, in which Democratic candidates won women but lost men (Clinton by a scant point in 1996). The last Democrat to win men and women alike was Clinton in 1992; the last Republican, George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Obama's lead among single women, a core Democratic group, is similar to Kerry's in 2004, but he's doing better with single men, and especially with married men and women alike -- again, with the economy as the motivator.
While McCain's lead among whites is smaller than Republican margins in this group since 2000, Obama's advantage among blacks is larger -- near-unanimous 98 percent support, compared with Kerry's 88 percent and Al Gore's 90 percent. Obama also has a 70-28 percent advantage among Hispanics, a level unseen for a Democrat since 1996.
Obama and McCain run closely in this survey among working-class whites, those with less than $50,000 in annual income, 49-46 percent.
A bigger difference from 2004 is the narrowed gap among better-off whites. McCain leads among middle-income whites by 14 points; Bush won them four years ago them by 24. And McCain leads by just 8 points among upper-income whites, a group Bush won by 26 points.
Obama's attracting 11 percent of Republicans, compared with Kerry's 6 percent in 2004; those chiefly are moderate or the few liberal Republicans, among whom Obama's winning 24 percent, double Kerry's level. McCain's 9 percent of Democrats is more similar to Bush's 11 percent four years ago.
Obama also is supported by 20 percent of conservatives, ahead of Kerry's 15 percent; those chiefly include conservative Democrats staying with the party.
The large number of interviews in the tracking poll allows a look at some small groups.
One is Jews; just 2 percent of likely voters, they divide by 67-31 percent between Obama and McCain, the best for a Republican since George H. W. Bush's 35 percent in 1988.
Another group of some interest is the cell-phone only population, which ABC and the Post have been including in daily tracking. They're a broadly pro-Obama group, by 62-35 percent.
Indeed in landline-only interviews, the Obama-McCain race stands at 52-45 percent among likely voters. The inclusion of cell-only respondents makes it 53-44.
Obama Maintains Advantage Over McCain in Ground Game
Finally there's the ground game.
Updating Monday morning's report, 28 percent of all likely voters say they've been contacted directly by the Obama campaign, 22 percent by the McCain side -- an Obama advantage, but for both sides tens of millions of personal contacts by both campaigns, in person or by phone, e-mail or text message.
Contacts are higher in the 18 battleground states and five-toss-up states (Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana) as identified by the ABC News Political Unit.
McCain campaign contacts are reported by 34 percent in the battlegrounds and 35 percent in the toss-ups; Obama contacts, by 39 and 36 percent, respectively.
What matters, though, is not just the number of contacts but their targeting and/or effectiveness. Obama has a very large advantage nationally -- but one that shrinks somewhat in the battleground states, and disappears in the five closest.
As the table shows, nationally, among all likely voters who report a contact by the Obama campaign, 70 percent support him, while among those who report a McCain contact, 53 percent support him.
In the battleground states, Obama is supported by 66 percent of those who've been contacted by his campaign, McCain by 54 percent of those who've heard from him.
But in the five toss-up states, Obama is supported by 56 percent of his contacts, McCain by 60 percent of his. Maybe that's why they call them toss-ups.
METHODOLOGY: Interviews for this ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll were conducted by telephone Oct. 30-Nov. 2, 2008, among a random national sample of 2,470 likely voters, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a 2-point error margin for the full sample. Questions 24 and 45 were asked Nov.1-2 among 1,247 likely voters; those results have a 3-point error margin. Questions 21 and 42 were asked Oct. 31-Nov. 2 among 1,877 likely voters; those results have a 2.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.