By GARY LANGER
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Sen. Barack Obama is riding economic discontent to an advantage in Ohio, bolstered in part by financially stressed voters in the state’s hard-hit industrial belt — and following it up with a more extensive ground campaign in this key contest. In political sentiment Ohio looks much like the nation; the economy far outstrips other issues and Obama leads in trust to handle it. That — plus the shadow of President George W. Bush over Sen. John McCain’s campaign — fuels Obama past lingering concerns about his experience. An aggressive ground war also helps: Thirty-seven percent of Ohio’s registered voters say they’ve been personally contacted by the Obama campaign. That beats the 27 percent who’ve heard from McCain, and also surpasses the level of contacts by both campaigns in 2004, when Ohio was decisive.
Making and keeping such contacts may matter. Likely voters in this ABC News/Washington Post poll put Obama, Democrat of Illinois, ahead of McCain, Republican of Arizona, by 51 to 45 percent if the elections were today. But it’s not today, and there’s room for change: Eighteen percent have not made up their minds for sure, much like the national figure. And movability peaks among independents, young and first-time voters — the former a swing group; the others, two of Obama’s best. Among Obama’s advantages, though, is sheer energy: Fifty-eight percent of his Ohio supporters are “very enthusiastic” about his candidacy, compared with just 30 percent of McCain’s. And while that’s about the same for Obama as nationally, high-level enthusiasm for McCain is 8 points lower in Ohio than in the nation overall.
The contours of the race are telling. Obama leads by a wide margin in Cuyahoga County, the heavily Democratic Cleveland metropolis. But perhaps more critical is his 17-point advantage in the state’s northeast, including the ailing industrial cities of Akron, Canton and Youngstown — a keystone for Democrats in statewide races. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., managed only a closer, 52-47 split with Pres. George W. Bush in this region in the 2004 election, not enough to win the state, and thus the presidency. The northeast isn’t the only region of interest. In the center and rural southeast of the state, generally Republican but including more-Democratic Columbus, it’s a 6-point race, 51-45 percent Obama-McCain in a region Bush won by 8 points four years ago.
There are sharp divisions among groups, again with comparisons to 2004 instructive. While Obama is losing white voters by 7 points, Kerry lost them by 12. While Kerry won 84 percent of Ohio’s black voters, Obama’s winning them essentially unanimously — 98 percent. Bush won married women by 20 points in 2004; they’re dividing about evenly now (and are substantially more worried than their husbands about the family’s finances). And while young voters favored Kerry by a 14-point margin, they’re even more of a mainstay for Obama; he holds a 2-1 lead among likely voters under 30, compared with a dead heat among those 30 and older. Relying on young voters is a risk for Obama (as it was for Kerry) given their uncertain turnout. What’s essential, then, is his ability to battle McCain to a standstill among over-30s, a group Kerry lost by 7 points. And that has much to do with the economy.
Among all registered voters, 53 percent call the economy the single most important issue in their vote, much like the national figure, with all other answers in the single digits. And among likely voters, those focused on the economy favor Obama by 61-34 percent; among those who name any other issue, McCain leads, 57-38 percent. Eighty-six percent of registered voters in Ohio are worried about the economy’s direction, and 70 percent are worried about their own families’ finances — two more groups in which Obama has broad advantages. His lead peaks among those who are “very” worried, and that high-level worry is strongest in the important northeast region. Economic worry at the personal, household level also peaks, naturally, among lower-income Ohioans. And notably, Obama holds a 10-point edge among working-class whites in the state, those with household incomes under $50,000 a year.
Obama’s trouble connecting with working-class whites helped Hillary Clinton beat him in the Ohio primary. But now, among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who’d preferred Clinton for the nomination, 82 percent prefer Obama to McCain. That’s 10 points better than Obama’s support among Clinton Democrats nationally. There’s another way in which the economy throws its weight in vote preferences: Ohioans divide closely on whether they care more about the candidates’ personal qualities or their positions on the issues. Among likely voters more focused on personal qualities, McCain has a 62-34 percent lead. But among those more concerned with the issues — the economy chief among them — it’s 65-30 percent for Obama. Ohio isn’t the only state where economic concern is boosting Obama. The same effect has appeared in national ABC/Post polls since Sept. 22, in an ABC/Post Virginia poll Sept. 21, and in a variety of state polls from other sources.
Head-to-head on issues, in this survey Obama leads McCain by 13 points, 52-39 percent, in trust to handle the economy, and by similar margins on creating jobs and in trust to handle taxes, a point of sharp contention between them. They’re even in trust to handle a major crisis, and McCain’s usual edges in trust to handle terrorism and the Iraq war are single-digit margins here. Obama’s +8 on energy policy. Personal attributes also differentiate the two. Obama connects especially in trust to bring needed change to Washington, a 2-1 lead over McCain; and in better understanding the economic problems people are having — potentially an essential point given the level of concern, and a 53-35 percent Obama advantage, again much like the national figure. Obama also has an 8-point edge as the stronger leader; and the two run closer — about evenly — on who better “shares your values,” an opening for McCain.
McCain’s best line of attack continues to be Obama’s experience; while 52 percent of registered voters say he has the kind of experience it takes to serve effectively as president, a very substantial 46 percent say he does not. That result more than anything explains why Obama’s advantage on the economy and other issues and attributes doesn’t translate into a bigger lead over McCain in vote preference. McCain, though, has, if anything, an even greater vulnerability of his own: Fifty-three percent of registered voters think he’d lead the country in the same direction as Bush. These, in sum, provide a blueprint to the campaigns’ likely approaches: McCain to stress the experience issue, to try to capitalize on his competitiveness on shared values and to press his advantage on trust to handle terrorism, Bush’s winning issue in 2004; and Obama, to push hard on the economy, change and Bush. One somewhat delicate point in the economic debate is the financial plan passed by Congress on Friday. Both candidates supported it, but Ohioans divide — 45 percent in favor, 49 percent opposed. (It was similar nationally last week.) The plan’s opponents in Ohio split evenly between the two candidates; supporters favor Obama by 12 points.
After the debate last week, the effect of the vice presidential candidates also looks much like it did pre-debate nationally. Sarah Palin does not appear to help her ticket overall; 31 percent of registered voters say she makes them less apt to back McCain, vs. 25 percent more likely, a slight 6-point net negative. Joe Biden runs 12 points positive: Twenty-six percent more likely, 14 percent less so.
Partisanship, and vote preferences among swing independents, are worth dissecting. Thirty-six percent of likely voters identify themselves as Democrats, 32 percent as independents and 28 percent as Republicans — substantially more independents and fewer Republicans than in the 2004 Ohio exit poll (when they accounted for 21 and 40 percent, respectively). The number of Democrats is about the same. That’s apparently because some 2004 Republicans, in the current climate, are more apt to identify themselves as independents. In 2004 Kerry won independents by 58-41 percent. Today they’re splitting essentially evenly, indicating that there are more Republican-leaning voters in their ranks. At the same time, fewer likely voters in this poll are under 30 (16 percent) than were identified as such in the 2004 exit poll (21 percent), and union voters are fewer in number — two strong Obama groups. All such variables fuel the aggregate estimate.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 3-5, 2008, among a random sample of 1,010 adults in Ohio including oversamples of African Americans and 18- to 29-year-olds (weighted to their correct share of the Ohio population), for a total of 134 black respondents and 166 18- to 29-year olds. Results among the 891 registered voters and 772 likely voters surveyed have a 3.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.