With fear about the economy driving voters his way, Barack Obama has broadened his lead over John McCain and strengthened his hold on key groups both presidential candidates are courting, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.
Three weeks before election day, Obama leads McCain 50% to 41% among voters likely to cast ballots Nov. 4. In September, the Illinois Democrat had a 49% to 45% lead.
In the weeks between the two surveys, the nation's financial system teetered toward collapse, and the poll shows the effect of that upheaval on voters. Only 10% now feel the country is heading in the right direction -- the lowest figure since the poll began asking the question in 1991. Eighty-four percent said the country was on the wrong track.
Nearly 7 in 10 cited the economy as the most important issue for the presidential candidates to solve -- from 4 in 10 in September -- and Obama was the clear beneficiary. Voters saw him as more trustworthy than McCain on the economy and better able to handle a financial crisis.
Obama improved sharply over the last month among independent voters, a much-desired bloc. McCain carried them by a 15-point margin in September; in this poll, Obama led by 5 points. Men, too, moved toward Obama, with the traditionally Republican-leaning group now in his camp. He also maintained his lead among women.
"He's got more in mind of what the country needs right now, and I just think he would be a better leader than McCain," said Betty May, a resident of Ironton, Ohio. May, a Democrat, spoke in a follow-up interview after being polled.
For McCain, there were slight gains over the last month among older voters and white working-class voters, and he has maintained an edge over Obama when it comes to perceptions of how the candidates would deal with Iraq and foreign affairs.
But the Arizona senator's overall level of support declined, in part because his dramatic decision to vault the little-known governor of Alaska onto the ticket appears to have backfired.
More than one-quarter of voters said they were less likely to vote for McCain because Sarah Palin was his running mate, more than the 22% who said she made them more likely to vote for him. In September, Palin drew in more voters than she put off.
Forty-three percent of voters felt she was qualified to be president, a far lower percentage than the 76% who judged Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden as qualified. Palin was the least popular of the four principal candidates.
But she has accomplished one of the ticket's goals: engaging a Republican base that is decidedly less enthusiastic than the Democratic one. One-third of conservatives, and nearly half of Republicans, said they were more likely to vote for McCain with Palin as his running mate.
Even though the election has been remarkably volatile -- and polls are not predictions -- the survey underscored the predicament in which McCain finds himself: Much of his recent effort has been aimed at shifting focus from the economy to questions he has raised about Obama's character. But the nation's financial difficulties are swamping all other issues. And tactics that McCain employed to fuel Republican enthusiasm, such as the Palin selection, have alienated other key groups.
McCain also remains tethered to an unpopular president. Obama has repeatedly pressed the argument that the Republican's first term would be akin to George W. Bush's third. Americans generally agreed: 52% said McCain would continue Bush's policies, compared with 42% who said he would not.
Still, Obama has not broken the race open, largely because of voters like independent Walter Eggers of Perry, Mich. The retired autoworker said he would vote for McCain because he distrusted Obama's economic policies and his background. "It's either being shot in the head or shot in the foot," he said of the choice.
More than anything, Eggers is enraged about the Wall Street and mortgage company titans who, to his mind, have left everyday Americans to pay off excesses as they worry over their own futures.
"Evidently, I've been a fool for playing by the rules all my life," he said. "Because the people who cheat, lie and steal have been living high on the hog, and now I have to pay for it."
From Oct. 10-13, the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll interviewed 1,543 adults, including 1,446 registered voters, 1,030 of them deemed likely to vote. The margin of sampling error for the poll, conducted by Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
At this juncture, the candidates' imperatives are to consolidate their bases and, since neither political party has a clear majority, appeal to enough independents or cross-party voters to carry the day. Obama was faring better on most fronts.
Both candidates were carrying about 9 in 10 of their party regulars. Though McCain has targeted supporters of defeated Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama has increased his support among her backers. Seven in 10 Clinton voters were siding with Obama, up from 6 in 10 in September.
The movement of independents from McCain to Obama over the last month was responsible for much of the Democrat's increased lead. They are also largely responsible for Palin's faltering fortunes.
In September, for example, 38% of independents said her presence on the ticket made them more likely to vote for McCain, while 18% said it made them less likely. Now those figures are almost fully reversed, with only 19% of independents saying they were more likely to vote for McCain because of Palin, to 31% who said she made them less likely to cast a ballot for the Republicans.
At the same time he was making up ground among independents, Obama was cutting into Republican-allied groups McCain must dominate to win.
More than 1 of every 5 self-described conservatives, for example, was siding with Obama, while only 1 in 14 liberals was siding with McCain. One in 5 white evangelicals -- the group that forms much of the base of the modern Republican Party -- was choosing the Democrat. Sixteen percent of those who said they were members of the "religious right" were siding with Obama. And married women, who typically connect strongly with Republicans, were split, with almost half going to each candidate.
In addition, Obama was benefiting from the huge increase in new voters, for which his campaign is partly responsible. Of those planning to cast their first presidential ballot this year, 58% were in Obama's camp, compared with 34% for McCain.
Undergirding Obama's lead was voters' trust in him on their most pressing concern, the economy.
Asked whether they had confidence that Obama had an economic plan that could deal with the crisis, 56% said yes, compared with 37% who disagreed. Asked the same question about McCain, 41% said he had an acceptable plan, compared with 50% who disagreed.
In a constellation of related questions, voters chose Obama when asked whom they trusted on the economy, who would do a better job handling the financial crisis, who cares most about people like them and who would change the way business is done in Washington. The last finding, by a 2-1 margin, suggests voters are repudiating McCain's reform pitch.
A tantalizing question as the election nears is the impact of Obama's biracial background. Though pollsters disagree over whether voters answer questions about race honestly, in the survey only 8% of registered voters said that Obama's race caused them reservations about voting for him. That group sided with McCain, 50% to 36%; those who professed to be untroubled by race went for Obama, 50% to 40%.
Among the latter was Eddie Harrison of Brenham, Texas, a 77-year-old African American and Democrat, who believes that election day will show that "things have changed" in America.
"This is what we've been fighting for all my life," he said. "I wouldn't dare miss this vote."
Times Poll associate director Jill Darling contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Los Angeles Times / Bloomberg Poll
Q: If the election for president were being held today, which ticket would you vote for?
(Among likely voters)
Barack Obama-Joe Biden: 50%
John McCain-Sarah Palin: 41%
Some other party's ticket: 2%
Don't know: 7%
Some other party's ticket: 1%
Don't know: 5%
(All results are among registered voters except first question)
Q: Do you know enough about Barack Obama/John McCain to decide whether he would make a good president or not?
*--* Obama McCain Yes 73% 81% No 23 15 Don't know 4 4 *--*
Q: Do you have a positive or negative feeling about:
*--* Positive Negative
Obama 53% 34
McCain 47% 39
Biden 49% 27
Palin 43% 42 *--*
Q: Do you think Sarah Palin/Joe Biden is qualified to become president of the U.S. if something happens to John McCain/Barack Obama, or not?
*--* Palin Biden
Qualified 43% 76%
Not qualified 49 13
Don't know 8 11 *--*
Q: Who do you think would be best at:
*--* Obama McCain
Changing the ways things are done in D.C. 51% 26
Making the right decisions about the economy 48% 36
Caring more about people like you 47% 31
Dealing with an international crisis 39% 48
Achieving success in Iraq 38% 49 *--*
Results may not add up to 100% when some categories are not shown.
To get full wording and results, log on to www.latimes.com/timespoll.
How the poll was conducted: The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll contacted 1,543 adults nationwide by telephone Friday through Monday. Included are 1,446 registered voters and 1,030 likely voters. Likely voters were determined by a screening process that includes intention, certainty, political activism and enthusiasm about voting as well as vote history. First-time voters were not excluded. Telephone numbers were chosen randomly in separate samples of landline and cellphone exchanges in the nation, allowing listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted, and multiple attempts were made to contact each number. Cellphone exchanges were hand-dialed. The cell and landline samples were combined and adjusted for sample size and non-response. Adults in the combined sample were adjusted to the most recent estimates from the National Health Interview Survey for household phone types and to census proportions of sex, ethnicity, age, education and national region. The margin of sampling error for adults, registered voters and likely voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points in each case. For smaller subgroups, the error margin may be higher. Survey results may also be affected by combining samples and by factors such as question wording and the order in which they are asked. Interviews were conducted by Interviewing Service of America Inc. in Van Nuys.
Source: L.A. Times/Bloomberg Poll