With 53 days until Election Day, John McCain has pulled even with Barack Obama in the latest NEWSWEEK Poll. Buoyed by the Republican convention and overwhelming partisan enthusiasm for his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain is now tied with Obama among registered voters nationwide, 46 percent to 46 percent.
Two weeks of all-Sarah Palin-all-the-time media coverage, and the McCain bounce in national and battleground state polls, has spurred Democratic anxieties that despite President Bush's dismal approval ratings, the party might be squandering the chance to take advantage and reclaim the White House. But NEWSWEEK's Poll suggests the race is very much still in play. McCain's current level of support, after all, is up just 5 points from July, before either party's nominating convention, when Obama led McCain 44 to 41 percent.
Perhaps more troubling for the Obama campaign than the overall head-to-head numbers, however, is the dramatic hardening of McCain's support suggested in the poll. In July, only 39 percent of McCain voters said they supported McCain strongly. By contrast, 71 percent now say they strongly support the Republican nominee. Obama, meanwhile, has seen support increase from his voters, as well, but far less dramatically—67 percent now say they support him strongly, compared to 61 percent in July. Enthusiastic support will prove crucial to both parties in a close election, as voters are more likely to turn out for, give money to and volunteer on behalf of candidates they firmly back.
Quantifying how much of this McCain bounce is attributable to the Palin pick can be tricky. When asked, only 29 percent of respondents in the poll said Palin makes them more likely to support McCain in the fall, a proportion on par with other running-mate selections in recent history, like Al Gore in 1992 and Jack Kemp in 1996. In fact, 22 percent of voters say Palin makes them less likely to support McCain, more than any other recent vice presidential candidate.
But clearly, McCain has benefited enormously from the avalanche of attention his vice presidential selection triggered. On a signature Obama issue, the war in Iraq, the Republican nominee now leads his Democratic opponent 51 percent to 41 percent, a marked change from an April NEWSWEEK Poll, which had Obama leading McCain on the issue, 54 percent to 34 percent. McCain also leads Obama on the issue of taxes and spending and on national security and terrorism. On the No. 1 issue on voters' minds in this election, the economy, 49 percent to 40 percent prefer Obama to McCain—though the Democrat's lead there has narrowed significantly since June, when a NEWSWEEK Poll showed him with a 54 percent to 29 percent lead over McCain.
One key group driving McCain's bounce on these issues: white women. McCain now leads Obama in this group by 16 points, 53 percent to 37 percent, up from July, when white women backed McCain by only 5 points—44 percent to 39 percent. Twenty-four percent of these women say they are more inclined to vote for McCain now that he has a female running mate.
Overall, a majority of voters (52 percent) have a favorable opinion of Palin, even if they are not familiar with some of the details in her record. Fifty-seven percent of registered voters did not know that Palin opposes abortion even in instances of rape and incest. Sixty-nine percent did not know that she favors teaching creationism in public schools. Asked if Palin shares their view on abortion, 43 percent of white women said yes, 41 percent said no and 16 percent did not know.