Voters' Economic Jitters Shake the Race in Virginia

State poll finds economy is the most important issue to Virginia voters.

Sept. 22, 2008— -- Economic jitters and a favorable Democratic climate are contributing to a competitive presidential contest in Virginia, a traditionally Republican state in national elections but one where Democrats have won the last three races for governor or U.S. Senate.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll in the commonwealth shows the powerful role of the economy in voters' views this year: Fifty-two percent call it the single most important issue in their vote, far and away No. 1. And eight in 10 are worried about the economy's direction in the next few years, with 45 percent very worried.

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Those concerns, likely exacerbated by last week's market upheaval, work to Barack Obama's advantage.

He holds a 10-point lead over John McCain among registered voters in trust to handle the economy; a bigger, 23-point advantage in understanding Americans' economic problems; and large head-to-head leads in vote preference among those who cite the economy as their top issue and who express worry about its direction.

McCain's also hurt by his perceived proximity to George W. Bush – 53 percent of registered voters in the state think McCain would lead in the same direction as Bush, hardly popular since 83 percent think the country's seriously off on the wrong track. And by a 20-point margin, more think Obama would bring needed change to Washington.

But McCain pushes back elsewhere.

Nearly half the state's voters cite a wide range of other top concerns, and among them he leads by a 19-point margin. As is the case nationally, he prevails over Obama in trust to handle terrorism or an unexpected crisis. And he leads by nearly 20 points among veterans, a sizable group in Virginia.

In a head-to-head match-up 49 percent of Virginia likely voters support Obama, 46 percent McCain – a close race, with the difference within this poll's margin of sampling error.

It moves decimally, to a rounded 50-45 percent, when third-party candidates Ralph Nader and Bob Barr are included.

White Women May be Key to Obama-McCain Battle in Virginia

White women, whose preference has been unsettled in national ABC/Post polls, may be key here as well.

They favored George W. Bush over John Kerry by a vast 29-point margin in 2004, when Bush won Virginia. But in the state's 2006 U.S. Senate race, Republican George Allen won white women by just 6 points, close enough for the Democrat, Jim Webb, to capture the seat by less than a 10,000-vote margin.

In this poll McCain leads Obama among white women by a scant 5 points, much like the Webb-Allen result.

Economic concerns may be a reason; they are higher among white women than among white men, who overwhelmingly favor McCain. For example, among registered voters, 63 percent of white women are worried about their own family's financial situation; that declines to 51 percent of white men.

Republicans have won Virginia in every presidential election since 1968. But the state also has elected Democrats; in addition to Webb's victory in 2006, Democrats have won the last two elections for governor.

And the climate is good for Democrats this year: Former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner holds a 2-1 lead in his race against Republican Jim Gilmore, another former governor. Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine has a powerful 66 percent job approval rating. And Webb's approval rating is 54 percent.

With more than 40 days to go, the contest is far from over: Nineteen percent of likely voters, nearly one in five, say they have not made up their minds for sure.

Among those who say they have definitely decided, though, Obama has a slight lead, 54-46 percent. And, as nationally, he has more enthused voters: Sixty-four percent of Obama supporters are very enthusiastic about their candidate, compared with 45 percent of McCain's.

Indicating the Republican Party's difficulties, just 28 percent of likely voters in Virginia identify themselves as Republicans, vs. 33 percent Democrats and the rest independents.

In 2006 and 2004 exit polls, Republican voters slightly outnumbered Democrats. Adjusting this poll to those partisan divisions gives McCain a little boost, but the race remains very close overall – still essentially a dead heat.

Rather than partisanship, a key reason for the closeness is the split among independents. They divide about evenly, 47-46 percent between McCain and Obama. In 2004 they went for Bush by 10 points. He won the state by 9.

Role of Race Critical Factor in Battleground State

Race is a critical factor as well.

Bush won Virginia whites by a vast 68-32 percent in 2004. McCain's now ahead among whites by a closer (albeit not close) 57-37 percent. But Obama's also winning near-unanimous 96 percent support from blacks, compared with Kerry's 87 percent. And blacks account for one in six likely voters in the state, more than their numbers nationally, albeit a bit under their share in the 2004 Virginia exit poll.

Regional divisions are an essential element of Virginia politics.

Obama is strongest by far in northern Virginia, the generally well-off Washington D.C. suburbs that Kerry won in 2004 and Webb won by a wider margin in 2006.

The race is close in the Southeast, a swing area of the state including the Democratic-tilting Norfolk and the Republican-tilting Virginia Beach, and it moves heavily to McCain in the state's west.

Well worth watching is the east, where McCain currently has a scant 5-point edge.

The region includes rural, Republican areas, but also Richmond, with a sizable black population. Bush won it by 15 points in 2004, Allen by 10 in 2006. Whites in the east go 2-1 for McCain in this poll, but African-Americans and other nonwhites pull it closer.

It's the Economy...Again

Obama's 10-point advantage in trust to handle the economy is matched by his lead, 49 to 39 percent, in trust to fix the problems with major financial institutions that have transfixed world markets.

And economic concerns are broad across a range of measures: As noted, 82 percent of registered voters in Virginia say they're worried about the economy's direction; 74 percent express concern about the stock market; and 59 percent are worried about their own family's finances.

And it differentiates vote preferences.

Looking just among whites, McCain's advantage is much smaller among people who are worried economically than those who are more sanguine.

His vast 57-point lead among white men who are not worried about their own finances shrinks to 15 points among those who are worried. And McCain leads by 20 points among white women who are unworried about their family finances – but among white women who are worried, the race stands at 49-45 percent, Obama-McCain.

METHODOLOGY: This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone September 18-21, 2008, among a random sample of 1,001 adults in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The results from the full survey have a 3-point error margin. Results among the 857 registered voters and 698 likely voters surveyed have a 3.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.

Click here for a PDF with charts and full questionnaire.