Barack Obama has achieved a significant lead over John McCain in the days following the first presidential debate. Pew’s new survey conducted Sept. 27-29 finds that Obama has moved to a 49% to 42% advantage among registered voters. The race was virtually even in mid-September and early August. Obama had not led McCain by a significant margin in a Pew survey since June.

The latest national poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted among 1,505 adults (including 1,258 registered voters) by landline and cell phone, suggests that three factors appear to be favoring Obama. First, more voters rate Obama’s performance in last Friday’s debate as excellent or good than say the same about McCain’s (72% vs. 59%). Obama’s leadership image also has improved. There is now almost no difference in the minds of voters as to which candidate would use better judgment in a crisis.

Second, the electorate continues to have much more confidence in Obama than McCain to deal with the financial crisis, which is dominating the public’s attention at levels usually associated with wars and natural disasters. Obama also has widened his lead as the candidate best able to improve the overall economy, from nine points in mid-September to 18 points currently (51% to 33%). (See: Interest in Economic News Surges, October 1, 2008)

Third, opinions about Sarah Palin have become increasingly negative, with a majority of the public (51%) now saying that the Alaska governor is not qualified to become president if necessary; just 37% say she is qualified to serve as president. That represents a reversal of opinion since early September, shortly after the GOP convention. At that time, 52% said Palin was qualified to step in as president, if necessary.

In the past few weeks, Obama has made significant gains among Democrats, including white Democrats. In fact, the current poll finds that he has somewhat greater support among Democrats than McCain draws among Republicans. In addition, a majority of Republican voters (52%) credited Obama as doing a good job in the debates, while only 37% of Democratic voters were complimentary about McCain’s performance Friday night.

Since mid-September, Obama has garnered more support from older baby-boomers, affluent voters and those in the battleground states, where he now holds a 52% to 39% lead. While McCain continues to lead Obama among white voters overall, his support among whites is concentrated among men, older voters, those with less education, and those living in the South. Obama currently leads McCain among college educated whites, while the preferences of white women are evenly split.

Obama’s resurgence in the horse race parallels a recovery of his advantage over McCain for dealing with key domestic issues such as the economy, energy problems and taxes. By wide margins, voters express more confidence in him than in his rival to deal with these problems; Obama’s advantage on these issues had narrowed in mid-September. Nonetheless, McCain continues to inspire more confidence on the foreign policy and national security issues, as he has throughout the campaign.

Obama’s renewed advantage on the economy may also be in part a measure of reaction to the economic crisis. Seven-in-ten Americans say they are paying very close attention to economic news, the highest mark in almost 20 years. Obama continues to lead, by 46% to 33%, as the candidate best able to handle the nation’s financial crisis.

McCain’s leadership advantage has declined since the summer. About the same percentage says Obama would use good judgment in a crisis as says that about McCain (42% Obama vs. 45% McCain). McCain held a 15-advantage on this leadership dimension in August. Similarly, Obama runs about even with McCain in views of which candidate is a strong leader (43% McCain, 42% Obama).

In the new survey, nearly identical percentages of voters view Obama and McCain as well-informed. McCain holds a solid advantage as being more personally qualified to be president (by 49% to 35%); however, his lead has narrowed since August, when twice as many voters viewed McCain as more qualified than Obama. Obama is viewed by a majority of voters (52%) as the candidate who “can bring about the change the country needs;” just 33% say that phrase better describes McCain.

There is a clear correlation between views of Palin’s qualifications and support for McCain, which may be hurting the GOP candidate. Fewer people see her as qualified to become president, and the balance of opinion toward Palin has grown more negative since early September. Unfavorable views of the Alaska governor have increased among most demographic and political groups, with GOP voters a notable exception. Currently, a narrow majority of independent voters (54%) express a favorable view of Palin, while 37% are unfavorable. In early September, positive impressions of Palin among independents outnumbered negative opinions by greater than two-to-one (60% vs. 27%).

While both candidates receive favorable reviews for the debate, those who watched had very different impressions of the candidates’ performances. “Confident” is the word used most often by voters to describe Obama’s debate performance, while “inexperienced” and “intelligent” are also mentioned frequently. Voters use the word “experienced” most commonly to describe their impressions of McCain’s debate performance, followed by “old” and “knowledgeable.”

Obama Takes Post-Debate Lead

While the overall contours of support for the two candidates remain largely unchanged, Obama has gained among some key groups of voters, including his own partisan base and voters in battleground states. Indeed, Obama now has more overall support – and more highly committed support – among Democrats than McCain has among Republicans. But he continues to struggle among less educated white voters, white non-Hispanic Catholics, and voters ages 65 and older.

There continues to be a strong generational difference in support for the two candidates. Obama has made significant gains among baby boomers (ages 50-64), including white voters in this age group. He currently leads by 12 points among voters ages 50 to 64 (51% to 39%), up from just five points in early September.

By contrast, McCain has widened his advantage among the next oldest group: currently, he leads 48% to 35% among voters ages 65 and older; in early September, his lead was just five points among voters in this age group (45% to 40%).

Obama also has increased his support among better educated white voters, gaining 11 points among whites with some college education and five points among white college graduates. He continues to do poorly, however, among whites with no more than a high school education (trailing McCain 33% to 52%). He also trails among white Catholics by a similar margin (39% to 52%).

Obama has made progress in consolidating his base support: he now leads McCain among Democrats by a 92%-5% margin, a gain of five percentage points since earlier in the month. McCain leads among Republicans by 86% to 8%. Independents continue to tilt slightly to McCain; he currently holds a 46% to 38% edge among independent voters.

While both candidates gained in strong support among their partisans after their respective party conventions, Obama has now moved ahead of his rival on this important measure of commitment. Fully 70% of Democrats say they support Obama “strongly,” a gain of eight points since earlier in the month. By contrast, just 55% of Republicans say they strongly support McCain.

Greater enthusiasm for Obama among his partisans is also seen in an analysis of the swing vote, those voters who are either undecided or who favor a candidate but say they might change their mind. Among conservative and moderate Democrats, a group that had not fully warmed to Obama in previous polling, 81% now say they are certain to support Obama, up from 69% earlier in September. Obama also has gained among liberal Democrats; 92% now say they are certain to vote for him, up from 87% two weeks ago. McCain’s Republican support is less certain; 79% of conservative Republicans and 64% of moderate and liberal Republicans are firmly committed to supporting McCain.

The first presidential debate appears to have done little to help independent voters make up their minds. Independents remain uncertain about their choice, with 43% in the latest poll classified as swing voters, about the same as earlier in the month when 41% were swing voters. Independents who are certain about their choice divide 32% for McCain, 25% for Obama.

The overall size of the swing vote is about the same as it was prior to the first presidential debate: currently 26% are swing voters, 27% were classified this way two weeks ago. Four-in-ten voters are firmly committed to Obama, as are 34% for McCain. Among swing voters who watched the debate, more gave Obama’s performance a positive rating (63%) than did so for McCain (54%). And they also say Obama would do a better job on the economy, energy, and bringing needed change to the country.

But by even larger margins, swing voters rate McCain as personally qualified to be president. And substantial proportions of swing voters say that McCain would do a better job with foreign policy, the war in Iraq and preventing another terrorist attack.

Candidate Favorability

Two-thirds of all registered voters (66%) say they have a favorable impression of Obama, compared with just 31% who have an unfavorable opinion of him. McCain’s overall image is also positive; 60% of voters say they have a favorable impression of McCain while 35% express and unfavorable opinion.

Views of Obama are now more favorable than were opinions of John Kerry following the first presidential debate in 2004. In early October 2004, 53% expressed a positive opinion of Kerry, while 41% expressed a negative view. McCain’s image is similar to George Bush’s at about the same point in the 2004 campaign; at that time, 57% of voters had a favorable opinion of Bush while 40% felt unfavorably toward him.

Candidate Images

Since early August, Obama has almost pulled even with McCain as the candidate who would use good judgment in a crisis, and has cut into McCain’s wide advantage as the more personally qualified candidate. These changes, however, reflect gains for Obama among his political base rather than among independent voters. The share of Democrats who say Obama has the better judgment in a crisis jumped from 63% in August to 81% currently. But he continues to trail McCain among independents on this quality by wide margin (32% Obama, 49% McCain.)

Similarly, the share of Democrats who now say Obama is more personally qualified to be president rose from 55% to 69%, but has not risen at all among independents, who still see McCain as the more qualified by greater than two-to-one (56% to 24%).

Obama and McCain also are cited by about the same number of voters as a strong leader and well-informed. Obama holds a wide advantage as the candidate who can “bring about the change the country needs” (52% Obama, 33% McCain). McCain maintains the image as the candidate who “is willing to take a stand, even if it’s unpopular” (50% McCain, 37% Obama).

Candidates and the Issues

At a time of widespread economic uncertainty and concern, Obama has doubled his advantage over McCain in just a few weeks on improving the economy. McCain, meanwhile, continues to hold the edge on foreign policy and the war in Iraq. On several issues, though, the differences appear similar to what they were before McCain’s gains in mid-September, following the GOP convention.

Just over half (51%) say Obama can do the best job of improving economic conditions, compared with about a third (33%) who choose McCain. In mid-September, shortly after the GOP convention, 47% chose Obama and 38% chose McCain. Both candidates are near where they were in July, when Obama held a 15-point lead on the economy.

A similar pattern emerges on dealing with the nation’s energy problems. In the latest survey, slightly more than half (52%) choose Obama, compared with 36% who choose McCain. This is similar to late May, although McCain had narrowed the margin after the convention (46% to 40%).

McCain continues to hold advantages on foreign policy, Iraq and protecting the country from a terrorist attack, but the margins have narrowed slightly on all three issues since mid-September. For example, 53% now say McCain can do the best job of defending the country from a terrorist attack, compared with 36% who choose Obama. In mid-September, McCain’s lead was slightly greater (56% to 31%). In July, McCain led on terrorism by 48% to 33%.

Obama, meanwhile, appears to have boosted his edge on the question of which candidate would do the best job dealing with taxes. Close to half (49%) answer Obama, while 36% choose McCain. That margin is wider than earlier this month (44% to 39%) and similar to Obama’s lead on taxes in June (47% to 36%).

Obama has a substantial advantage on taxes among women voters (25 points). By contrast, men voters are almost evenly split as to which candidate could do a better job on taxes. Obama also holds a clear lead on this issue among voters in all age groups, except for those ages 65 and older.

And while voters with annual incomes of less than $50,000 favor Obama by wide margins on taxes, he also runs slightly ahead of McCain among higher-income voters.

Views of McCain as Change from Bush

Voters remain split over whether or not McCain represents change from President Bush. In the current survey, 46% say McCain, if elected, would take the country in a different direction than Bush, while 41% say McCain would continue Bush’s policies. There has been little movement in opinion on this question since March.

The partisan divide on whether McCain would govern differently than Bush remains wide. Fully 75% of Republicans believe McCain would take the country in a different direction, compared with only 16% of Democrats. A slim majority of independents (55%) believe McCain would break from Bush’s polices as president, while a three-in-ten (30%) think he would not.

A narrow majority of swing voters (54%) say that McCain will take a new direction, while 22% say he would continue Bush’s policies. In mid-September, swing voters by 48% t
o 35% said that McCain represented a change from Bush.

The Vice Presidential Candidates

In advance of Thursday’s vice presidential debate, a majority of Americans (63%) say that Joe Biden is qualified to serve as president if that becomes necessary, but fewer than four-in-ten (37%) say Sarah Palin is qualified to take on the job.

Majorities of Republicans (55%), Democrats (78%) and independents (56%) say Obama’s vice-presidential nominee is qualified to hold the office of president. In contrast, though a majority of Republicans say Palin is qualified (68%), more than three-quarters of Democrats (77%) and a plurality of independents (47%) do not believe she is qualified for the presidency.

Compared with public opinion immediately following Palin’s nomination and convention speech, far fewer now hold the view that she is qualified to be president. More than half (52%) viewed her as qualified earlier in the month.

The decline in the belief that Palin is qualified to become president has been broad-based. While roughly two-thirds of Republicans (68%) say their party’s candidate is qualified, that represents a substantial decrease since early September (16 points). In addition, only about a third of women (34%) say Palin is qualified to step in as president, down from 52% a few weeks ago. Women are now slightly less likely than men to view Palin as qualified; in early September, identical percentages of women and men said she was qualified to be president if the need arose.

Views of Palin

Views of Sarah Palin are less favorable than they were shortly after the Republican convention. Palin’s favorability ratings are little changed from the Sept. 9-14 survey (54% to 51%), but 40% of voters now say they have an unfavorable opinion of the Alaska governor, compared with 32% earlier in the month.

By contrast, views of her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden, remain virtually unchanged over the same period (53% favorable now, 52% in early September).

Opinions of Palin have declined across most groups, although Republican opinion about the Alaska governor has remained relatively stable. Views of the vice presidential nominee, which were already divided along party lines, have become more polarized. About seven-in-ten Democratic voters (69%) now hold a negative view of Palin, up 10 points from earlier in the month; just 21% say they have a favorable opinion of her. Among independent voters, unfavorable opinions have increased from 27% in mid-September to 37%. Nearly nine-in-ten Republicans (87%) continue to express a favorable opinion of Palin, which is largely unchanged from earlier in the month.

Among voters with college degrees, 49% see the vice presidential nominee unfavorably, compared with 39% of those with some college and 35% of those who have not attended college. Voters age 65 and older are somewhat less likely to hold unfavorable views of Palin than younger voters.

Traits of VP Candidates

There are major differences in voters’ views of the personal traits of the vice-presidential candidates. Fully three-quarters of voters say they think of Biden as well-informed, while just 45% say Palin is well-informed. By contrast, 70% see Palin as down-to-earth, compared with a much smaller majority (55%) that associates that trait with Biden.

Voters generally see both of the vice-presidential candidates as honest; 61% say they think of Palin as honest while a nearly identical percentage (60%) says the same of Biden. Neither is seen as arrogant by a large percentage of voters. One-third of voters says they think of Biden as arrogant while somewhat fewer (27%) say that negative trait applies to Palin.

In general, voters who say they are certain to vote for McCain see Palin in a positive light; this also is the case for committed Obama supporters’ views of Biden. It is notable, however, that a solid majority of those who say they are certain to vote for McCain say they think of Biden as well-informed (63%), compared with 79% who say the same about Palin.

Swing voters, like voters generally, are much more likely to view Biden as well-informed (70% vs. 45% for Palin). By a wide margin (70% to 50%), more swing voters say Palin is down-to-earth. While nearly identical percentages of all voters see both candidates as honest, more swing voters say this trait describes Palin (67%) than say it applies to Biden (53%).

Who Sees Palin as Well-Informed?

Men and women voters have similar views about whether Palin is well-informed. Fewer than half of women voters say they think of Palin as well-informed (46%) as do 44% of men voters. However, there are differences among women about whether this trait applies to the Alaska governor. Married women are far more likely than unmarried women to say that Palin is well-informed (52% vs. 39%).

There also are sizable differences in opinions among religious voters about whether Palin is well-informed. Nearly two-thirds of white evangelical voters (65%) say they think of Palin as well-informed, compared with just 41% of white non-evangelical Protestants.

Obama Had Debate Edge

Barack Obama and John McCain received high marks from voters for their debate performances. However, substantially more say Obama did an excellent or good job (72%) than say the same about McCain (59%). Obama’s debate performance is rated more highly than McCain’s across several demographic groups.

Women voters who watched the debate are considerably more likely to say Obama did an excellent or good job than they are to say the same about McCain (75% vs. 56%). Men who watched the debate, however, give Obama only a slight edge (69% vs. 63%).

Obama’s debate edge is widest among young voters; more than eight-in-ten voters (81%) under age 35 who watched the debate say the Democratic candidate did an excellent or good job, compared with 58% who give McCain similar ratings. Obama also holds an 18-point advantage among voters ages 35-49 and a smaller 10-point advantage among those ages 50-64.

The two candidates receive virtually identical ratings among voters ages 65 and older, a group that supports McCain in the horserace by a 48% to 35% margin; about six-in-ten debate watchers 65 and older give each candidate an excellent or good rating for his performance (62% for Obama vs. 61% for McCain).

Issues and the Presidential Debate

Voters who watched all or part of last Friday’s presidential debate tend to see Obama more favorably when it comes to who can best handle issues. For example, Obama runs almost even with McCain on foreign policy among debate watchers (45% Obama, 49% McCain), while McCain holds a 14-point lead among voters who did not watch (36% Obama, 50% McCain). Similarly, among debate watchers Obama leads McCain by a 52% to 37% margin on the issue of taxes, compared with a slimmer 44% to 36% margin among those who did not watch.

Interestingly, the difference between those who did and did not see the debates is all
in the share who see Obama as the stronger candidate. On every issue, McCain runs about equally well among those who did and didn’t watch the debates. But on nearly every issue, a larger share of debate-watchers selects Obama, while a smaller number say “don’t know.”

These gaps cannot be attributed simply to party identification. The overall balance of party identification among debate watchers is 51% Democrat/lean Democrat, 43% Republican/lean Republican – an eight point Democratic advantage. But there is a comparable six point advantage among non-watchers as well (47% vs. 41%). Among voters overall, Democrats hold a 49% to 42% edge in party identification (including leaners).

More Say Economy is Poor

Public views of the national economy, which have been negative for more than a year, have gotten even worse. Virtually no one rates the economy as excellent, while 7% rate it as good; overall positive opinions of the economy little changed from July (10% excellent/good). But the proportion rating the economy as poor has risen by 15 points, from 50% in July to 65%.

Bleak views of national economic conditions are increasingly held across party lines. At the time of the 2006 mid-term elections, the condition of the economy was a partisan issue with 70% of Republicans calling conditions excellent or good compared with only a quarter (25%) of Democrats. Republicans have soured on the economy over the past two years; the share of Republicans rating economic conditions as excellent/good has fallen from 70% in November 2006, to 46% in September 2007, to 14% today. As a result, the party gap on this issue has steadily diminished.

A large majority of Americans continue to say that the economy is either in a recession (56%) or a depression (21%); both numbers are largely unchanged from July. Partisan differences in views about whether the economy is in a recession also have narrowed: currently, 60% of Democrats and 54% each of independents and Republicans say the economy is in recession. Since July, the proportion of Republicans saying the economy is in a recession has increased by nine points 9 (from 45%), while remaining largely unchanged among independents and Democrats.

However, Democrats remain far more likely than Republicans to say that the economy is in a depression. About quarter of Democrats express this view (27%), compared with 22% of independents and just 10% of Republicans.