Propelled by dissatisfaction with the country's direction but hampered by doubts about his readiness for the presidency, Barack Obama is forcefully challenging John McCain in four states at the top of the Democrats' target list, while lagging in a fifth, according to Allstate/National Journal polls of battleground states.
The surveys canvassed voters in five of the states carried by President Bush in 2004 that Obama is contesting most aggressively: Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Ohio, and Virginia.
Among those states, Obama is performing best in New Mexico, where he leads McCain by 7 points, 49 percent to 42 percent. In Florida and Ohio, the two largest electoral prizes on the list, Obama and McCain are running in dead heats: The two are tied at 44 percent in Florida, while McCain leads in Ohio, 42 percent to 41 percent, a statistically insignificant difference. Likewise, in Colorado, Obama leads by a single percentage point, 45 percent to 44 percent. In Virginia, McCain holds a 7-point edge, 48 percent to 41 percent.
The Allstate/National Journal poll is conducted by Ed Reilly and Brent McGoldrick of FD, a business and financial communications company. (Next week, the survey will release results from three of McCain's top targets among states won by Democrat John Kerry in 2004.)
Obama almost certainly cannot get the 270 electoral votes necessary for victory without capturing at least one, and probably more, of these potential tipping-point states. Along with Iowa, where other media polls show Obama maintaining a consistent lead, and Nevada, where surveys generally show a close race that tilts toward McCain, these five battlegrounds rank atop the list of 2004 Bush states where Obama is investing the most time and money.
Similar dynamics are shaping the races in each of the five Bush-won states surveyed. From one direction, Obama is benefiting from a desire for change grounded in widespread disenchantment with Bush. Although the president carried each of these states in 2004 and all except New Mexico in 2000, today a substantial majority of voters in all five disapprove of his performance in office. (About three-fifths of the voters in four of these states are unhappy with the job Bush is doing. In the fifth, Virginia, 56 percent disapprove.) Similarly, the survey found that most voters in all five states lean toward policy positions on energy, the economy, and international affairs predominantly associated with Democrats.
From the other direction, in each state except New Mexico, McCain leads by a double-digit margin when voters are asked which candidate is more prepared to lead the country. Only in New Mexico did more than 38 percent of voters consider Obama better prepared.
For many swing voters, the deciding factor seems to be the relative weight they place on each side of that equation--how they balance their desire for change against their preference for experience.
Denise Poage, a piano teacher in Corrales, N.M., who participated in the survey, said she would give Bush's performance only a "C-minus." But she's backing McCain, despite her worry that the senator from Arizona would too closely follow the outgoing president's policies. The reason? "Senator Obama scares me to death," she says. "I think that he doesn't have enough experience. I think he hasn't played on the world field. I think he has a great promising career, but it's too quick."
Bernadett Roach, a payroll manager for a construction company in Littleton, a suburb south of Denver, is also uncertain that Obama is ready. Yet Roach, an independent who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, says she plans to vote for the senator from Illinois because she believes that the country needs a new direction, and McCain did not convince her in his acceptance speech earlier this month that he would provide it. "Even though Obama doesn't have the experience per se, and McCain probably does, I think that McCain is a little stagnant," Roach said. "I just don't think that's what our country needs. We ... need to do something now; we are falling apart. And I know it's not going to happen overnight, but I personally didn't feel that McCain had that drive ... to make all these big changes."
The state polls show that the two presidential nominees possess some similar political assets but starkly contrasting personal strengths.
Each has largely consolidated his political base. McCain held at least 82 percent of self-described Republicans in each of the five states (peaking at 92 percent in Virginia). Obama also appears to have reduced the dissension that afflicted him earlier in the campaign. He drew at least four-fifths of Democrats in all five states (topping out at 91 percent in both Colorado and Virginia). Obama faces the greatest defections in Ohio, where the survey found him winning just 81 percent of Democrats overall and only 74 percent of white Democrats.
McCain leads among independents in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. (That Ohio result is a big turnaround from 2004, when exit polls showed Kerry with a double-digit advantage among Ohio independents.) Obama holds a 10-point lead among independents in New Mexico, and the two men split independents almost evenly in Colorado, where they are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. These independents could prove especially crucial because the portion who are undecided (22 percent across the five states) is much higher than the percentage of undecideds among Democrats or Republicans.
In follow-up interviews, several independents favoring Obama said they had cooled on McCain as he adopted more-conservative positions on issues such as taxes during his race for the GOP nomination. "I really used to like John McCain, and I always said I would vote for him if he ran for president. But he is starting to sound an awful lot like George Bush, which scares me to death," said Christine Cleland, a Realtor from Bristow, Va. "When it comes down to it, John McCain is more ready to be president, but I don't trust what he's going to do when he gets there."
But many other voters not firmly attached to either party still see McCain as independent and principled. Eleanora Layman, a retired saleswoman in Middletown, Va., says she would have voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton if she won the Democratic nomination but prefers McCain over Obama. "When McCain was a prisoner of war, he learned to love our country. And when he says that he will be working for the people, not us working for him, I really believe he means that," she said.
Still, McGoldrick notes that across these five hotly contested battleground states McCain isn't running as well with conservative white independents--or, for that matter, conservative white Democrats--as he does in the national Diageo/Hotline tracking poll also conducted by FD. "That is costing McCain about 1 to 2 percent in these states," McGoldrick said. "And that could make the difference."
If McCain's greatest personal strength in the survey is experience, one of Obama's strongest suits is empathy. He led in all five states when voters were asked which nominee better "understands the needs and priorities" of people like themselves. In each state but New Mexico, however, Obama's advantage on that question was smaller than McCain's edge on experience.
Demographically, the race showed consistent patterns, too. Among white voters, McCain led by double digits except in Colorado, where he was ahead by 9 percentage points. White men usually provided McCain with crushing advantages (of at least 20 percentage points, for instance, in Colorado, Ohio, and Virginia). Even among white women, Obama faced double-digit deficits except in Colorado, where that voting bloc split evenly.
But Obama receives virtually unanimous support from African-Americans in the three surveyed states with substantial black populations--Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. And in Colorado and New Mexico (states where the black population is too small to be reliably polled), he holds commanding leads among Hispanics. In Florida, where Cuban-Americans traditionally lean Republican, Hispanics tilted more narrowly toward Obama.
One measure of the contest's tightness is the close division among voters that McGoldrick identifies as "everyday Americans." These voters--homeowners from all racial and ethnic backgrounds who range in age from 30 to 60 and whose income is between $50,000 and $100,000--split almost evenly in Colorado, Florida, and Ohio, and leaned toward McCain in Virginia and Obama in New Mexico.
In these critical states, most voters embrace issue positions closer to those advocated by Obama than to those supported by McCain. Asked whether the best way to stimulate the economy is through tax cuts or government spending in areas such as health care and education, majorities in Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Ohio picked government spending; a slim plurality in Virginia agreed.
When asked whether the key to safeguarding America's national security is to focus on military strength or on building closer ties with other nations, a majority in all five states picked the latter.
Likewise, asked whether the top priority in addressing the nation's energy challenges should be expanded oil drilling in the U.S., heightened conservation, or greater efforts to develop alternative-energy sources, a plurality of voters in all five states picked alternative energy.
But Obama isn't benefiting from those sentiments, which closely track his own proposals, as much as he might hope. In each state, a majority of the voters who favor new government investments, closer ties with allies, and increased focus on renewable energy, prefer Obama over McCain. But McCain draws even higher percentages among the voters who support the typically Republican positions of tax cuts, focusing on military strength, and expanded drilling.
A similar dynamic is evident in attitudes about Bush. Among the minority of voters who view the president's performance favorably, McCain draws overwhelming support. At least four-fifths of voters in each state who approve of Bush are now backing McCain.
Obama hasn't consolidated those disapproving of Bush to nearly the same extent. His support among these "Bush disapprovers" ranges from highs of 73 percent in New Mexico and 69 percent in Colorado to a low of 63 percent in Florida.
That disparity is partly because Bush now draws negative marks even from many conservative and Republican-leaning voters unlikely to support any Democrat for president. But it also reflects the continuing challenge that Obama faces in trying to convert dissatisfaction with the country's direction into support for his candidacy--and the relative success that McCain has had separating himself from Bush. "I think McCain is going to make quite a few changes," said Layman, who voted for Bush in 2004 but for Democrat Al Gore in 2000. "I think he recognizes how bad the economy is."
Layman's sentiments notwithstanding, anxiety about the economy remains one of Obama's key assets. Although these statewide polls were largely completed before Monday's stock market meltdown, a substantial plurality of voters in each state picked the economy as the nation's top problem. And Obama led McCain in every state among those voters.
They included such people as Joe K., who works for a landscaping business in Columbus, Ohio, and chose not to reveal his last name. He voted for Bush in 2004, but with business "down," he's prepared to mark his ballot for Obama. "I just think we need a change," he said.
At a time of discontent, that desire to shuffle the deck can be overwhelming--almost primal. But in these Bush-won battleground states that could tip the election, the fear that McCain represents too much continuity remains closely balanced against the concern that Obama represents too great of a leap into the unknown.
This article appears in the September 20, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.