For Obama, a new cause for confidence - and for caution

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / October 26, 2008
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CONCORD, N.H. - Barack Obama has vaulted to a 15-point lead over John McCain in New Hampshire, according to a new Boston Globe poll, a significant gap in a state that McCain considers his second political home and has long been a swing state in the race for the White House.

Financial distress has clearly driven voters from McCain to Obama, who was trailing his Republican rival by 2 percentage points in Septembe - a 17-point swing in just one month. Nearly half of those surveyed cited the economy and jobs as their top concerns, and they overwhelmingly saw Obama as the candidate best equipped to address them.

"McCain certainly has his back to the wall in New Hampshire," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll. "The economic crisis in September and October has changed the mood of voters in New Hampshire, who are now solidly backing Obama as the candidate best able to deal with economic issues."

The poll also found that the Arizona senator is being dragged down by a deeply troubled Bush administration, an increasingly unpopular running mate, Sarah Palin, and the perceived negativity of his campaign. Three-quarters of those surveyed said Obama has the best chance to win, which Smith said could depress turnout for McCain.

Obama's edge in New Hampshire is fresh evidence that the state is shedding its identity as the last refuge for Yankee conservatives. The survey of 725 likely voters, conducted from Oct. 18 to Oct. 22, had Obama leading 54 to 39 percent, with 6 percent undecided and a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

In a sign of how all-important the economy has become in this election, Obama has seized a commanding lead even though voters saw McCain as better able to take on terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and Iraq.

When it came to who would be better at handling the economy and the financial system, the Illinois senator trounced his rival.

Harry Nelson, a 79-year-old retired Wall Street money manager who participated in the poll and agreed to speak with a reporter afterward, said the next president will enter the White House under conditions similar to those that faced Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Obama, he said, has "some of the same stuff" as Roosevelt and could be a "transformational leader."

"If you look at the way he runs his campaign, it's been brilliant," said Nelson, an undeclared voter who lives in Hanover. "I don't think he's an economic expert, but he doesn't have to be - he picks good people. . . . That's what management is all about, isn't it?"

Most voters - 66 percent - considered McCain the more experienced of the two candidates. But, in a sign that McCain has failed to cast himself as a reformer and to dissociate himself from Bush, twice as many respondents said Obama was the candidate most likely to bring change.

While an equal number of voters rated McCain and Obama as the stronger leader, the poll found that Obama has established himself as the candidate voters can most relate to and trust. A significant majority said Obama has better judgment, and a majority said he is more trustworthy and most reflects their values.

Misty Foote, a 37-year-old independent voter from Rochester, said she decided to vote for Obama in the last couple of weeks.

"I think he's down to earth and he's one of us," said Foote, who is disabled and lives on Social Security. "I just think McCain is going to be just like Bush. He's going to keep everything the same, and that would be fine if we had a good economy, but we don't."

On financial issues, 15 percent said they were "very" or "somewhat" worried about losing their jobs, and a similar number - mostly younger and lower-income voters - were deeply concerned about losing their homes. But more than two-thirds of those polled said they were "very" or "somewhat" worried about a secure retirement, and 42 percent said the same about college costs.

The bailout plan was unpopular in New Hampshire among voters in both parties, according to the poll; 55 percent said they disapproved of it strongly or somewhat. The poll found widespread support for tax cuts for the middle class; Republicans were more likely to favor cuts for small businesses.

New Hampshire, a battleground state in both of the last two presidential election cycles, has been growing steadily more liberal in recent years because of significant population churn. Smith said nearly one-third of potential voters did not live in the state or were too young to vote in 2000.

Three other factors besides the economy appear to have damaged McCain in the Granite State. By a nearly 3-to-1 margin, voters said McCain's campaign was the most negative, and over the last month, the Republican nominee's favorability ratings have plummeted while Obama's have climbed.

"The John McCain I see right now is not the John McCain I saw in 2000," said Kevin Clancy, a 47-year-old undeclared voter from Manchester who had considered voting for McCain after Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination. "I just can't stand the lies and the smears that are coming from the Republican Party."

McCain is also being dragged down in New Hampshire by a hugely unpopular White House, the poll found. Twenty percent of voters surveyed had a favorable opinion of the president and 71 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him; last month, the numbers were 24 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

A third handicap for McCain is Palin. The poll found that more voters now have an unfavorable opinion of her than a favorable one, a reversal of the situation a month ago; Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden's popularity, on the other hand, has steadily grown. Thirty-nine percent this month said they had a favorable opinion of Palin; 48 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion of her. Fifty-four percent had a favorable opinion of Biden, 27 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him.

Linda Comeau, 55, an independent voter from Stratham who supported Clinton in the primary, said she was "very open" to McCain until he picked Palin. "She is not prepared to be vice president," she said. "She is uninformed, she doesn't know what she is saying, she is inexperienced, and compared to Barack Obama her intellect is minimal."

Still, many McCain supporters preferred him for his experience, especially on national security issues.

Betsy Manchester , a 58-year-old school nurse's assistant who lives in Nottingham, said she thought McCain had an edge over Obama on national security issues.

"He is a veteran; he has served his country; he was a POW," she said. "I think he's seen it all and he knows basically what to expect and how to react." On Iraq, she added, McCain is closer to her view that "we've just got to stick it out - unfortunately."

A central question is whether polls accurately reflect the effect of race and racism in a campaign where Obama is the first African-American nominee of a major party.

The Globe poll found that 22 percent of New Hampshire voters said they had heard a friend, family member, or co-worker say they would not vote for Obama because he is black, but only 9 percent said they thought many people would not vote for him because of his race, and 6 percent thought many people would support him because of it. Smith said that together, the results suggest that while some voters have heard chatter about race, it is isolated or coming from people who would be unlikely to vote for Obama anyway.

Geoff Gilbertson, a machinist from Peterborough, said one person he knows wouldn't vote for Obama because of his race, but it was "someone who has absolutely no interest in voting."

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