WASHINGTON – Both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain solidified support among party loyalists during the conventions, but it was the Republican nominee who entered the presidential campaign’s final stretch with newfound momentum, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
McCain, lifted by increasing enthusiasm for his candidacy and a jump in support among white women, has wiped away Obama’s pre-convention advantages. Among all registered voters, the contest is now basically deadlocked – 47 percent for Obama, 46 percent for McCain. It is also about even among those who say they are most likely vote: 49 percent for McCain, 47 percent for Obama.
McCain’s gains stem from his improved standing against Obama on the election’s core issues and a significant narrowing of the newly-minted Democratic nominee’s advantage as the candidate better suited to shake up Washington.
McCain used his convention to present himself as a maverick and a reformer, stressing past fights with special interests and his own party leadership. He also introduced his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as a like-minded reformer.
On one front, the new message had the intended effect: only four in 10 voters in the new poll said Obama has done enough to explain the “change” he promises; that’s down six points from before his convention, during which he set his ideas before more than 84,000 people in Denver and a television audience of nearly 40 million. And while Obama maintains a sizable, 12-point advantage as the one who would do more to change government, that’s down from a 32-point lead on the question in June.
On this topic and other questions, McCain has gained ground among white women, voters the McCain campaign hoped to sway with their pick of Palin as vice presidential candidate. In previous surveys, white women gave Obama a clear edge on bringing change; now they divide 47 percent for McCain, 44 percent for Obama.
White women have also moved toward McCain on their voting preferences, helping him pull back to about even with Obama in Post-ABC polling.
The Arizona senator gained ground on many of the key issues and candidate attributes tested in the poll, and while Obama still boasts more enthusiastic supporters, McCain has narrowed the gap.
The findings are welcome news to Republican strategists, who are now more optimistic than at any point in the campaign about their prospects of winning in November. But McCain’s bump brings him to about even par in this poll, and if recent history is a guide, he may have to fight to hang on to his post-convention gains. In 2004, President Bush turned a tied contest into a 9-point advantage following the GOP convention in New York, only to see that newfound lead quickly dissipate.
The question both campaigns are weighing now is whether McCain, by hitting hard on the themes of reform and change that have been at the heart of Obama’s message, has lastingly reshaped voters’ perceptions of the two tickets and the choices they face in November.
Again, Obama still has an edge, albeit diminished, as the one more likely to change Washington, and he maintains his big advantage as the one with a better temperament to be president. But for now, voters see McCain in a more positive light than they did going into the two conventions.
McCain has a 17-point lead on which candidate can best handle an unexpected crisis and, for the first time, a double-digit advantage as the one more trusted on international affairs. McCain also has a 10-point lead on dealing with the war in Iraq, an issue that voters had been divided on since the outset of the campaign.
And on the dominant issue of the election, the economy, McCain has whittled Obama’s advantage to five points, the smallest it’s been this year. McCain has also drawn even with Obama on energy policy, and has sharply narrowed Obama’s lead on dealing with the federal deficit and handling social issues such as abortion and gay civil unions.