Oct. 13, 2008 -- A tornado of economic discontent is buffeting the nation, sending satisfaction with the country's direction to a 35-year low, George W. Bush's approval rating below Richard Nixon's worst – and Barack Obama, boosted by economic empathy, to his best-yet advantage in the presidential race.
Given the global economic crisis, a record 90 percent of registered voters say the country is seriously off on the wrong track, the most since this question first was asked in 1973. At 23 percent, Bush's job approval rating has fallen below Nixon's lowest; it's a point away from the lowest in 70 years of polling, set by Harry Truman in early 1952. Bush's disapproval, meanwhile, is at an all-time record – 73 percent.
Powered chiefly by the public's economic concerns, Obama leads John McCain by 10 points among likely voters, 53-43 percent, in this ABC News/Washington Post poll. Though every race is different, no presidential candidate has come back from an October deficit this large in pre-election polls dating to 1936.
Still, Obama's lead depends upon a shift in basic partisanship that will need to stand the test of turnout come Nov. 4. And while movable voters – those who haven't definitely made up their minds – have inched down to 13 percent, that's still more than enough to change the shape of the race.
Given the critical elements at play, attention to the contest is extraordinary. Ninety-two percent of registered voters are following the election closely, 59 percent "very" closely – both mid-October records in ABC and ABC/Post pre-election polls back to 1988.
WOE – Economic concerns are paramount. Nearly nine in 10 registered voters are worried about the economy's direction; nearly seven in 10 are worried about their own family finances. Fifty-five percent call the economy the single most important issue in their vote, with all other mentions in the single digits.
Reflecting these economic worries, just 44 percent of Americans are confident they'll have enough money to carry them through retirement, down sharply from a high of 69 percent three years ago. At the same time, the public's economic concerns are long-running – consumer confidence hit a 22-year-low back in May – and not directly related to the stock market crash. As in the past, people are keeping the market in perspective; just 16 percent say it's hurt them "a great deal." (See separate analysis.)
As first evident in an ABC/Post poll three weeks ago, Obama holds the reins on economic woe. Registered voters trust him over McCain to handle the economy by 53-37 percent. Obama holds his largest lead yet, a remarkable 30-point margin, in better understanding the economic problems Americans are having, 58-28 percent. He leads McCain by about as much, 59-31 percent, in trust to help the middle class, and by 11 points on taxes, two prime points of contention in the last presidential debate.
WIND – The economy is not the only wind at Obama's back. McCain's receiving blowback for what's perceived as negative campaigning; registered voters by 59-35 percent say he's been mainly attacking Obama rather than addressing the issues. Obama, by contrast, is seen by an even wider margin as issue-focused. (See separate analysis.)
The issue advantage helps Obama another way; among likely voters who say they care more about the candidates' positions on the issues than their personal qualities he leads McCain by a huge 39 points, 68-29 percent. McCain leads broadly among those who say personal qualities matter more, but there are fewer of them.
The debates also seem to have helped Obama; 32 percent say they have a better opinion of him as a result of the two debates so far, vs. just 8 percent worse. For McCain it's 12 percent better, 26 percent worse. Their third and final debate is Wednesday.
One apparent result of these factors is a drop in McCain's favorability rating, to 52 percent, a loss of 7 points since the Republican convention; 45 percent now see him unfavorably, a new high for McCain in polls since 1999. Obama's rating, meanwhile, is 64 percent favorable, near its high and up 6 points in the same time frame.
Enthusiasm for McCain's candidacy, never strong, has softened alongside his favorability rating. Just 29 percent of his own supporters are "very enthusiastic" about his campaign, the fewest since August and down a sharp 17 points from his post-convention peak. By contrast, 63 percent of Obama's backers are very enthusiastic, steady since September.
McCain's portrayal of Obama as a risky choice, further, is not resonating, and indeed may be backfiring. By 55-45 percent registered voters see Obama as safe rather than risky; by contrast, they divide 50-50 on whether McCain himself is safe or risky – down from 57-41 percent "safe" at McCain's best on this measure in June.
Among other factors, part of this may relate to concerns about McCain's age; registered voters also divide 50-50 on whether they'd be comfortable with his taking office at age 72, his weakest rating to date on this question. It was 56-42 percent after his convention.
AMMUNITION – McCain's not entirely out of ammunition. Even with the aura of negativity they've produced, there are some areas in which his criticisms have scored. He's moved closer on who's more honest and trustworthy, 44-40 percent Obama-McCain; that compares to a 47-36 percent Obama lead in an ABC/Post poll Sept. 22.
McCain's also moved up (though still trails) on who would better stand up to lobbyists and special interest groups – the "maverick" pitch – and he remains competitive on handling Iraq, terrorism and an unexpected crisis, all potential selling points if he can overcome the current dynamic.
Obama's greatest vulnerability remains experience, but McCain's failed to capitalize on it so far. Despite McCain's efforts, 54 percent say Obama has the experience it takes to serve effectively as president – a new high, albeit by a scant 2 points. Still, 45 percent say Obama lacks adequate experience, a lot to lose on this most basic qualification.
Obama, though, has opened a 14-point lead as the stronger leader; maintains his broad advantage on bringing "needed change" to Washington; and holds significant advantages in trust to handle health care, Social Security and – notably – taxes, another point they've sharply debated. Forty-five percent think their taxes would go up under Obama, but about as many, 42 percent, think they'd go up under McCain, too.
In terms of basic approach to governance, registered voters by 47-38 percent see a bigger risk that McCain would put in too few regulations than Obama putting in too many. And 47 percent are concerned McCain would do too much to represent the interests of large business corporations, up 6 points from June.
Just 14 percent, meanwhile, think Obama would do too much to represent the interests of African-Americans. And, in contrast with concerns about McCain's age, 91 percent say they're comfortable with the idea of Obama being the first African-American president.
BUSH AND PARTY ID – Another way to look at the challenge facing McCain is via the shadow of George W. Bush. Fifty-one percent of registered voters think McCain as president would lead the nation in the same direction as the profoundly unpopular Bush – as persistent a problem for McCain as experience has been for Obama.
Among likely voters who approve of Bush, McCain's supported by 91 percent – but there are precious few of them. Those who disapprove of Bush, meanwhile, favor Obama over McCain by a 70-25 percent margin. All else equal, to pull into the barest lead over Obama, McCain needs to boost his share of Bush disapprovers to 38 percent or more.
Other measures of discontent underscore the challenge. Among likely voters who say the country's off on the wrong track, Obama has a 16-point lead; ditto among those who are worried about the economy's direction. And among those who cite the economy as their top voting issue he leads McCain by 61-34 percent.
Long-running dissatisfaction with Bush (he hasn't seen majority approval in 45 months, a record by far), the Iraq war and the economy has prompted a flight from the Republican Party. On average in 2003, for the first time since ABC News started polling in 1981, equal numbers of Americans identified themselves as Democrats and Republicans. That's turned around; on average this year there's been a 10-point advantage in Democratic self-identification.
Specifically among likely voters, this poll finds a 9-point advantage for the Democrats – 39 percent identify themselves as Democrats, 30 percent as Republicans, the rest as independents or something else. If that holds on Election Day it'll be a departure from turnout in presidential elections since 1984, in which Democrats have held at most a 4-point edge. But given the level of current discontent with Bush, and the overall trend in party identification the last five years, it could.
One factor that's tended to help Republicans is the fact that the country is more center-right than center-left ideologically; on average, half again as many voters call themselves conservatives as liberals. But McCain nonetheless places less well than Obama does: Just 39 percent of registered voters call McCain "about right" ideologically, compared with 55 percent for Obama. A key reason is that 47 percent of moderates call McCain too conservative, more than the 29 percent who call Obama too liberal.
GROUPS – A note of caution in this election is the unusual movability in key swing groups – especially, again, independents, white Catholics and married women, all of which at various points have moved markedly in vote preference.
Obama now leads by 10 points among independents, 51-41 percent, and runs a competitive 51-46 percent against McCain among married women. White Catholics, however, favor McCain by 54-41 percent – worth watching, as they've backed the winner in each of the last eight presidential elections.
Obama makes it back, perhaps surprisingly, among non-evangelical white Protestants; normally a Republican group, they now tilt toward the Democrat – for the first time in ABC/Post polls this cycle – by 53-44 percent.
Among all white voters, McCain leads Obama by 7 points, 52-45 percent; that, however, is a bit less than the average Republican advantage among whites in presidential elections. Obama makes it back with 95 percent of blacks, as well as clear majority support among Hispanics.
There's a big gender gap. McCain and Obama are even among men; among women, who are more apt to be Democrats, Obama holds an 18-point lead, tying his biggest of the campaign. And Obama holds his best support to date, 81 percent, among sought-after Clinton Democrats – Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who preferred Hillary Clinton for the nomination.
Again, though, there are the movables, disproportionately likely to include some of the swing groups – 20 percent of white Catholics and 22 percent of independents. Movables may be a hard sell; while they could change their minds, half say it's "pretty unlikely." But movable they are, and until they settle, McCain may be down – but not out.
METHODOLOGY:This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 8-11, 2008, among a random sample of 1,101 adults including oversamples of African Americans and 18- to 29-year-olds (weighted to their correct share of the population), for a total of 150 black respondents and 201 18- to 29-year olds. Results among all adults and the 945 registered voters have a 3-point error margin. Results among the 766 likely voters surveyed have a 3.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.