PRINCETON, NJ -- Barack Obama enjoys a solid advantage over John McCain -- 53% to 39% -- in U.S. public perceptions of which of the two candidates would better handle the economy as president.
Obama's current 14-point lead on the economy is better than the 3-point edge he held right after the Republican National Convention in early September (48% to 45%), but is not quite as great as his 19-point margin after the Democratic convention in late August. At that time, 55% preferred him on the issue, compared to 36% choosing McCain.
According to the new USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted Oct. 10-12, most Republicans and Democrats consider their own party's candidate to be more capable of handling the economy than his opponent. The main problem, electorally, for McCain is that a majority of political independents favor Obama on the issue, while only 32% name McCain.
Wednesday night's presidential debate at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y., gives McCain a major opportunity to reverse this deficit, as, by prior agreement between the campaigns, the questions to be asked by moderator Bob Schieffer will deal primarily with the economy and domestic policy issues.
The weekend poll shows, additionally, that Obama is preferred over McCain by 12-point margins on the issues of taxes and energy. Obama's lead on these issues is particularly notable because McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, have strived to capture the political upper hand on both issues. The Democratic nominee has an even bigger advantage on healthcare, on which 61% of Americans say Obama would do the better job, and just 32% name McCain.
On the other hand, McCain is not entirely without his own perceptual strengths on the issues, but they are ones unlikely to surface as major issues in the upcoming debate. McCain has a strong advantage over Obama -- 55% to 39% -- on the issue of terrorism, and also leads by 50% to 38% on gun policy. He has a slight advantage on the situation in Iraq, although his 4-point edge, 50% to 46%, is not statistically significant. (Earlier this year, McCain led Obama by larger margins on the Iraq issue.)
Americans recognize important strengths in both of the major-party nominees for president, but the potential impact of these on the election could partly be a matter of timing.
Seven years ago, nothing was more important to Americans than terrorism. Just a year ago, the U.S. war in Iraq was a paramount public concern. McCain might have been better positioned to run for president at either of these times than he is today, given Americans' relative confidence in him on those issues. Instead, with the ailing economy swamping all other national concerns, and Obama beating McCain by double digits in public preferences on the issue, McCain is running uphill against steady headwinds in trying to convince a majority of voters -- and particularly independents -- that he's the right man for the times.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,269 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 10-12, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.