New Direction vs. Experience (and an Early Voting Update)

With the economy proving far scarier to voters this Halloween than the threat of terrorism or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, likely voters are looking more for new ideas and a new direction than an experienced hand – though it is a close call.

Just fewer than half, 48 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll, say new ideas and a new direction are more important in their choice for president than strength and experience. Slightly fewer, 43 percent, say the opposite.

That tilts the advantage to Barack Obama, given the sharp difference in vote choice. He wins 90 percent of “new ideas” voters, while 86 percent of “experience” voters go to John McCain. 

The preferences split largely along party lines. Seventy-seven percent of Republicans – the party that sent a war hero and longtime senator into battle for the presidency – say they prefer a strong, experienced candidate. About as many Democrats – whose party nominated a relative newcomer largely on his promise of change – focus on a new direction and new ideas. And independents divide down the middle.

Even with this division, Obama passes muster on experience with a majority of likely voters, his greatest vulnerability earlier in the campaign, and a point on which McCain has tried hard to make progress. Fifty-five percent say Obama’s experienced enough to serve effectively as president, essentially steady since Oct. 11. It cracked 50 percent for the first time on Sept. 29, just after the first presidential debate.

Nonetheless, it’s still a close call in some key groups. Independents, for example, divide by 51-46 percent on whether Obama’s experienced enough for the job.

…and an Early Voting Update

Separately, our latest tracking poll data find that one in six likely voters has done the deed, and as many say they will between now and Election Day. Their preference: Obama by a substantial margin.

Seventeen percent now say they’ve already voted, favoring Obama over John McCain by 59-40 percent. An additional 18 percent say they’ll do so before Tuesday, for a possible total of 35 percent voting early or by absentee ballot. That would be a record by far, well above its levels in 2004 and 2000 alike, 22 and 15 percent, respectively.

Obama’s wide margin among early voters reflects his campaign’s push; likely voters who plan instead to hold off until Election Day divide much more closely, 50-45 percent. And while state-level reports match the high numbers reflected in this poll, it remains to be seen whether long lines at early-voting locations depress some of that anticipated turnout.

Obama’s edge among early voters is particularly broad – better than a 2-1 margin – in the 16 battleground states and eight toss-up states as designated by our Political Unit. And intended early voting, that 35 percent total, peaks in some pro-Obama groups – among blacks and Hispanics, city dwellers and in the West. It’s also high among seniors, a more divided group.

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