With less than two weeks to go before the start of the presidential nominating conventions, Barack Obama’s lead over John McCain has disappeared. Pew’s latest survey finds 46% of registered voters saying they favor or lean to the putative Democratic candidate, while 43% back his likely Republican rival. In late June, Obama held a comfortable 48%-to-40% margin over McCain, which narrowed in mid-July to 47% to 42%.

Two factors appear to be at play in shifting voter sentiment. First, McCain is garnering more support from his base – including Republicans and white evangelical Protestants – than he was in June, and he also has steadily gained backing from white working class voters over this period. Secondly and more generally, the Arizona senator has made gains on his leadership image. An even greater percentage of voters than in June now see McCain as the candidate who would use the best judgment in a crisis, and an increasing percentage see him as the candidate who can get things done.

Conversely, Obama has made little progress in increasing his support among core Democrats since June – currently 83% favor him compared with 87% of Republicans who back McCain. The likely Democratic nominee is still getting relatively modest support from Hillary Clinton’s former supporters: 72% of them support Obama, compared with the 88% support level that McCain receives from backers of his formal GOP rivals. Obama’s strong points with voters are in being seen as the candidate with new ideas and as someone who connects well with ordinary people.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, was conducted by telephone – both landline phones and cell phones – from July 31-August 10 among 2,414 registered voters. It finds that race, gender and age are strong drivers of support in a closely divided electorate. Almost nine-in-ten African American voters (88%) back Obama, while McCain leads 51% to 39% among whites. Since June, McCain has gained support among men who now favor him by a 49%-to-41% margin. In contrast, women favor Obama by a roughly comparable margin of 51% to 38%. The Democratic candidate holds a 24 percentage-point lead over his rival among voters younger than age 30, whereas voters over age 50 are more evenly split (47% McCain, 42% Obama).

While Sen. McCain is attracting more support from Republicans than Sen. Obama is from Democrats, McCain’s backers continue to be less enthusiastic about him than are Obama supporters about their candidate. Fewer than half of McCain’s backers (39%) describe themselves as strong supporters of the Arizona senator, compared with 58% of Obama backers who say they support Obama strongly. The McCain supporters who back him “only moderately” are most troubled by his positions on economic issues, while Obama’s soft supporters are most troubled by his personal abilities and experience.

As was the case in Pew’s June and July surveys, one in three voters (33%) can be categorized as swing voters – of this group 12% lean to Obama. 11% lean to McCain and 10% are undecided.

McCain Makes Gains among GOP Base, White Working Class

The basic contours of the presidential race remain as they were earlier in the summer, but McCain currently enjoys slightly greater support among Republicans than he did two months ago (87% now, 82% in June), while Obama’s support among Democrats is unchanged (83% now, 82% in June). The candidates remain essentially tied among independents (45% for Obama, 41% for McCain).

McCain leads among white evangelical Protestant voters, 68% to 24% for Obama. In June, McCain’s lead was slightly smaller (61% to 25%). The candidates remain virtually tied among a crucial swing voter group, white non-Hispanic Catholics (44% Obama, 45% McCain).

Obama retains a very solid lead among young voters, topping McCain by 58% to 34% among those younger than age 30, about the same as in June. But he no longer has a clear lead among those ages 30-49, which he did in June. Among voters age 50 and older, the candidates are separated by only five points, with McCain holding a slight edge.

McCain now holds a significant 49%-to-41% lead among men, a group he split with Obama in June. Obama leads among women, 51% to 38%, nearly identical to his showing in June.

McCain continues to lead among white voters overall, and has made gains over the past two months among both whites living in the South and those who have not attended college. White southerners now favor McCain by a margin of 29 points, 60% to 31%. Two months ago, his advantage was 17 points (53% to 36%). In June, McCain led among whites with no more than a high school education by a modest 6 points, 45% to 39%. He now leads by nearly 20 points among this group (53% to 34%). McCain also leads Obama among white voters who have some college experience but do not have a four-year degree (53% for McCain, 39% for Obama). The two candidates are tied among white college graduates (46% each).

Candidate Support in 2008 Compared with 2004 and 2002

McCain’s overall lead over Obama among white registered voters (51% to 39%) is comparable to the advantage held by Bush over his Democratic opponents in 2000 (52% to 41% over Al Gore) and in 2004 (50% to 42% over John Kerry) at similar points in the campaign. And many of the demographic differences seen in previous elections continue to hold today – white voters who are evangelical Protestants, who have higher incomes, and who live in the South are among the strongest backers of John McCain, as they were of George W. Bush in his presidential elections

But unlike the 2000 and 2004 elections, age and education are strongly related to the vote choice of whites this year. A slim majority (51%) of whites younger than age 30 favor Obama in the current survey, while McCain is leading by a wide margin among those ages 30 and older. In the summers of 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush ran at least as strongly among younger whites as he did among older whites. Similarly, Barack Obama garners substantially more support from college-educated whites than he does among those who never attended college – there was no difference between high- and low-education white voters in the past two elections.

Swing Vote Remains Large

As was the case in June and July, one-in-three registered voters are swing voters, meaning that they either offer no initial candidate preference or say they might still change their mind. Currently, 35% of voters say they back Obama and have definitely decided not to vote for John McCain, 32% favor McCain and have definitely decided not to vote for Obama. Among independents, fully 46% fall into this swing voter category.

Primary Divisions Continue for Democrats

While 72% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters who backed Hillary Clinton for the party’s nomination say they will support Barack Obama this fall, a significant number of holdouts remain. Among the 28% who say they will not support Obama on November 4th, 18% say they will support McCain , 7% don’t yet know who they will support and 3% plan to back another candidate.

The Obama campaign has made no significant headway among former Clinton backers over the past two months. The voting preferences of Clinton’s supporters are v
irtually identical to earlier polls in June and July.

By comparison, fully 88% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters who backed a candidate other than John McCain for the GOP nomination say they will support McCain this fall. Just 6% favor Obama. Support for McCain in the general election has consistently been just as strong among Republicans who didn’t back him for the nomination as it is among those who did. By contrast, among Democrats, Clinton’s primary supporters are 21 points less likely than Obama’s primary supporters to back Obama in the general election (72% vs. 93%).

Despite these internal divisions, Barack Obama continues to have substantially more strong supporters in the general election than does John McCain. Overall, 27% of registered voters describe themselves as supporting Obama strongly, while just 17% say they back McCain strongly. This imbalance is driven by the overwhelming enthusiasm for Obama from those who backed him in the primaries.

McCain Strengthens Leadership Image

By a two-to-one margin (54% to 27%) voters say the phrase “personally qualified to be president” better describes McCain, virtually unchanged from June. Voters also continue to see McCain as the candidate who is most likely to use good judgment in a crisis, and the GOP candidate also now holds an advantage over his opponent on other key leadership traits. Meanwhile, Obama’s greatest advantage is being seen as the candidate who has new ideas and who connects well with ordinary people.

The percentage of voters citing McCain as the candidate who “would use good judgment in a crisis” and as the candidate who “can get things done” has increased significantly since June. More than half of voters (51%) now say McCain would use good judgment while 36% say the phrase better describes Obama; in June, McCain held a narrower 9-point advantage. Opinions about which candidate can get things done are nearly evenly divided (42% name McCain and 40% name Obama); in June, Obama held a slight edge (43% to 37%).

McCain has also improved his advantage as the candidate who is “willing to take a stand, even if it’s unpopular.” Nearly half of voters say this phrase better describes the Republican candidate (48%), compared with 38% who say it better describes his Democratic opponent. In June, voters were about as likely to name McCain (44%) as they were to name Obama (41%).

While McCain has made considerable gains relative to Obama in some areas, voters continue to say Obama is the candidate who has new ideas (69% to 17%), connects well with ordinary people (57% to 30%) and shares their values (47% to 39%). In addition, voters are much more likely to see McCain as “a typical politician” – about half (49%) say this phrase better describes McCain and 31% say it better describes Obama, virtually unchanged from June.

As was the case in June, voters are nearly evenly divided on whether the phrase “honest and truthful” better describes McCain or Obama. About four-in-ten (39%) see McCain as the more honest candidate and 36% name Obama.

What “Troubles” Voters About the Candidates?

When asked to pick what troubles them most about Barack Obama, about a third of McCain backers (34%) say his personal abilities and experience. But a substantial number – adding to a majority overall – cite Obama’s positions on either foreign policy issues (22%), economic issues (15%) or social and moral issues (16%) as the most troubling thing about him.

Not surprisingly, Obama’s policy positions trouble far fewer of his own backers, but worries about his personal abilities and experiences are just as widespread. Overall, 32% of Obama backers say this is what troubles them most about Obama. Among those who say they back Obama “only moderately” rather than strongly, fully 43% cite Obama’s personal abilities and experiences as what troubles them most.

When it comes to John McCain, concerns are focused almost entirely on his policy positions – fewer than one-in-ten voters (9%) cite his personal abilities and experiences as the most troubling. Obama’s supporters are most widely troubled by McCain’s positions on foreign policy issues (33%) followed by his positions on economic issues (26%). The reverse is true among McCain’s own backers, where McCain’s economic positions (28%) are cited far more often than his foreign policy positions (16%). Those who back McCain “only moderately” are the most likely to cite his economic positions as what troubles them most (32%).

What Voters Like about the Candidates

Another area of distinction lies in what voters say they “like most” about the two candidates. For John McCain, his personal abilities and experiences stand out as the most liked trait among both his backers (46%) and Obama’s backers (37%). A plurality of Obama’s supporters (36%) say that his positions on economic issues are what they like most about him, followed by his positions on social and moral issues (23%). Relatively few Obama supporters (17%) cite his personal abilities and experiences as what they like most – nearly twice as many (32%) cite this as what troubles them most about Obama. And while foreign policy is what troubles Obama supporters most about McCain, it does not stand out as a particular strength for Obama – just 14% of Obama supporters say this is what they like most about him.

While most Obama supporters can cite something that they “like most” about John McCain – with his personal abilities and experiences topping the list – a majority of McCain supporters (53%) say that they don’t like Obama on any of these fronts.