Oct. 25, 2008— -- John McCain's pushback alternatives against Barack Obama are few but still potentially potent. Among them: Iraq and the war on terrorism.
While neither is a clear advantage for McCain, he and Obama run evenly among likely voters in trust to handle the situation in Iraq, despite McCain's support for the unpopular war. They're also about even on terrorism; 49 percent prefer McCain, 47 percent Obama.
McCain's done better on both – a 20-point lead on terrorism, 10 points on Iraq, just after the Republican convention. After trailing Obama steadily for a month, that's the lightning he needs back in his bottle.
McCain's challenge, though, is the economy, the full-force gale blowing through this election. Likely voters have chosen Obama in trust to handle the economy in every ABC News/Washington Post pre-election poll since March, and by 55-40 percent now. Thin soup, but it's McCain's first 40 percent mark on the economy since late September.
The bottom line has been essentially static the past week; Obama holds a 9-point lead among likely voters, 53-44 percent, in this latest ABC/Post tracking poll, based on interviews Tuesday to Friday nights. Obama hasn't dipped below 50 percent, nor McCain above a high of 46 percent, since McCain's best of the year, Sept. 7.
Comparisons to 2004 underscore McCain's challenges. George W. Bush led John Kerry by 12 points in trust to handle terrorism and by 9 points on Iraq. They were about even on the economy – Kerry +3, 48-45 percent – but it was a far less dominant issue.
In 2004 likely voters divided evenly among these three – 22 percent said Iraq was their top issue, 21 percent the economy, 20 percent terrorism. Today 51 percent say it's the economy, 8 percent Iraq, 5 percent terrorism, a vastly changed political environment.
In aggregated data since the start of this tracking poll Oct. 16, McCain has almost unanimous support among likely voters who say terrorism is the single most important issue in their vote – 95-5 percent over Obama; his problem is that there are so few of them. Iraq voters, also few in number, favor Obama by 17 points. Economy voters, the most numerous by far, favor Obama by nearly 30 points -- the gist of his support.
PARTY – Obama's lead also rests on the Democratic advantage in intention to vote this year; 37 percent of likely voters are Democrats, 29 percent Republicans. That's unusual; Democrats and Republicans were evenly split in 2004, 37-37 percent, and Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a narrower 4 points in 2000 and 1996 alike.
There's been a shift away from the Republican Party since 2004, as the war in Iraq and George W. Bush turned broadly unpopular. Among all Americans, party identification has gone from 31-31 percent Democratic-Republican on average in 2003 to 36-26 percent on average this year – the same trend reflected now among likely voters.
The rest are independents, classic swing voters. In this latest tracking survey they divide by a very close 49-46 percent, Obama-McCain, indicating again that a good part of Obama's advantage relies on disproportionate intended turnout by Democrats. They back Obama by 91-7 percent; Republicans favor McCain, 88-11 percent.
OTHER GROUPS – Among other groups, Obama enjoys not only 98 percent support among African-Americans, but a 71-28 percent advantage among Hispanics, a group that inched toward the Republicans in 2004 (particularly in Bush's home state of Texas) but then moved back toward their norm in the 2006 midterm elections, when they voted 69-30 percent Democratic in U.S. House contests.
McCain leads by 52-45 percent among whites, but Obama's 45 percent in this group is the best for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter's 47 percent among whites in 1976. The two are even among white women, 49-49 percent, compared with a 17-point McCain lead among more consistently Republican white men.
Obama's support remains best by far among young voters, though there's no age group in which McCain has a clear lead. They split seniors, 49-48 percent, McCain-Obama.
Finally, as noted previously, a surprise group in the tracking poll is non-evangelical or mainstream white Protestants. A usually Republican group, they divide by 52-45 percent, Obama-McCain, countering McCain's big lead among white evangelicals, 73-23 percent, and the 51-46 percent McCain-Obama race among usually swing voting white Catholics.
METHODOLOGY – Interviews for this ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll were conducted by telephone Oct. 21-24, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,321 likely voters, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a 2.5-point error margin for the full sample. Results on questions 6g and 6h were conducted Oct. 22-23 among 661 likely voters; those results have a 4-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.