McCain 43 percent
Obama 44 percent
WASHINGTON — The presidential race tightened after the final debate, with John McCain gaining among whites and people earning less than $50,000, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll that shows McCain and Barack Obama essentially running even among likely voters in the election homestretch.
The poll, which found Obama at 44 percent and McCain at 43 percent, supports what some Republicans and Democrats privately have said in recent days: that the race narrowed after the third debate as GOP-leaning voters drifted home to their party and McCain’s “Joe the plumber” analogy struck a chord.
Three weeks ago, an AP-GfK survey found that Obama had surged to a seven-point lead over McCain, lifted by voters who thought the Democrat was better suited to lead the nation through its sudden economic crisis.
The contest is still volatile, and the split among voters is apparent less than two weeks before Election Day.
“I trust McCain more, and I do feel that he has more experience in government than Obama. I don’t think Obama has been around long enough,” said Angela Decker, 44, of La Porte, Ind.
But Karen Judd, 58, of Middleton, Wis., said, “Obama certainly has sufficient qualifications.” She said any positive feelings about McCain evaporated with “the outright lying” in TV ads and his choice of running mate Sarah Palin, who “doesn’t have the correct skills.”
The new AP-GfK head-to-head result is a departure from some, but not all, recent national polls.
Obama and McCain were essentially tied among likely voters in the latest George Washington University Battleground Poll, conducted by Republican strategist Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. In other surveys focusing on likely voters, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Obama up by 9 percentage points, while a poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center had Obama leading by 14. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, among the broader category of people registered to vote, found Obama ahead by 10 points.
Polls are snapshots of highly fluid campaigns. In this case, there is a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; that means Obama could be ahead by as many as 8 points or down by as many as 6. There are many reasons why polls differ, including methods of estimating likely voters and the wording of questions.
Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor and polling authority, said variation between polls occurs, in part, because pollsters interview random samples of people.
“If they all agree, somebody would be doing something terribly wrong,” he said of polls. But he also said that surveys generally fall within a few points of each other, adding, “When you get much beyond that, there’s something to explain.”
The AP-GfK survey included interviews with a nationally representative random sample totaling 1,101 adults, including 800 deemed likely to vote. For the entire sample, the survey showed Obama ahead 47 percent to 37 percent. He was up by five points among all registered voters, including the likely voters.
A significant number of the interviews were conducted by dialing a randomly selected sample of cell phone numbers, and thus this poll had a chance to reach voters who were excluded from some other polls.
It was taken over five days from Thursday through Monday, starting the night after the candidates’ final debate and ending the day after former Secretary of State Colin Powell broke with the Republican Party to endorse Obama.
McCain’s strong showing is partly attributable to his strong debate performance; Thursday was his best night of the survey. Obama’s best night was Sunday, hours after the Powell announcement, and the full impact of that endorsement may not have been captured in any surveys yet. Future polling could show whether either of those was merely a support “bounce” or something more lasting.
During their final debate, a feisty McCain repeatedly forced Obama to defend his record, comments and associations. He also used the story of a voter whom the Democrat had met in Ohio, “Joe the plumber,” to argue that Obama’s tax plan would be bad for working class voters.
“I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Obama told the man with the last name of Wurzelbacher, who had asked Obama whether his plan to increase taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year would impede his ability to buy the plumbing company where he works.