Do You Know This Candidate?

Barack Obama and John McCain alike have made strides since June in acquainting likely voters with their positions. The difference: For Obama’s supporters, it looks much more likely to matter.

More than three-quarters of likely voters in out ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll feel they know at least a good amount about the candidates’ positions on the issues, up 18 points for McCain and 21 points for Obama since the general election campaign got underway. That’s part of what campaigns are for.

But the importance likely voters place on those issue positions is not the same. Forty-five percent say the candidates’ positions on the issues are more important than their personal qualities – and they’re a very broadly pro-Obama group, favoring him by 67-30 percent. 

Fifty-three percent, however, say either that the candidates personal qualities are more important, or that the two are equally important (42 and 11 percent, respectively) – and this group favors McCain by 14 points, 55-41 percent.

That may be what McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, had in mind when he told The Washington Post in early September that what mattered in the race wasn’t issues but the voters’ “composite view” of the candidates. From McCain’s perspective that makes sense. From Obama’s, not so much.

Another approach to the data reinforces that conclusion. Among likely voters who feel they know at least a good amount about Obama’s positions, he leads by 56-40 percent. Among those who know at least that much about McCain, it’s a 51-46 percent McCain-Obama race.

That effect also appears among the subset of likely voters who feel they know a “great deal” about each candidate. Those who feel they know a great deal about Obama’s positions support him by a 2-1 margin, 64-31 percent. Those who know a great deal about McCain’s favor him by a smaller 8-point margin, 52-44 percent.

These results point to two conclusions about current strategy. One is that the McCain campaign portrayal of Obama as an unknown quantity may be aimed at breaking down the link between feeling informed about Obama’s positions and supporting him. The other is that Obama’s heavy advertising campaign, including his half-hour network television ads tonight, seems aimed at building up that very same link.

…and a Look at Movables

Another subject of interest, since we’re swimming in data these days, is what we call movable voters. Twelve percent of likely voters overall (using all 12 nights of our tracking poll), they’re those who are either outright undecided (just 2 percent) or who have a preference but haven’t definitely made up their minds (10 percent more).

Who are they? How movable? Here’s a sketch:

- Movables split about evenly between being highly movable - either undecided or saying there’s a “good chance” they’ll change their minds (7 percent) - and those who say it’s “pretty unlikely” they’ll change, 5 percent.

- They split by 37-34 percent between McCain and Obama, with 7 percent saying “neither” and 20 percent no opinion (based on the four nights of tracking data we released last night).

- Highly movables go 31-25 percent McCain-Obama, 13 percent neither, 29 percent no opinion.

- Unlikely movables, by contrast, split 50-49 percent Obama-McCain - more decisive, as you can see.

- Movability peaks in groups less rooted in partisanship: independents (17 percent movable overall, 11 percent highly), moderates (15 percent overall, 9 percent highly), white Catholics (15 percent overall, 8 percent highly) and white mainline Protestants (15 percent overall, 9 percent highly). 

- They’re also less engaged. Just 45 percent of movables are following the campaign very closely, compared with 68 percent of likely voters who’ve definitely decided on a candidate. So if these are folks Obama’s aiming at in his TV specials tonight – well, it’s not at all clear how apt they’ll be to tune in.

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