Fueled in part by the candidates' responses to the current economic crisis — as well as their performances at the first debates — Barack Obama has increased his national lead over John McCain, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Obama is ahead of McCain by six points, 49-43 percent, which equals his biggest lead in this poll. Two weeks ago, the Democratic nominee held a two-point advantage over his Republican counterpart, 48-46 percent.
"Over the past couple of weeks, McCain has absorbed a very tough, one-two punch," says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who conducted this survey with Democrat Peter D. Hart. "First, the financial crisis... Second, the debates. These two things have clearly led to a momentum shift in this campaign, where Obama has slowly started to [increase] his lead."
With fewer than 30 days until Election Day, Hart adds, "I think John McCain finds himself in a hole no candidate wants to be in" — behind.
The poll — which was conducted of 658 registered voters from Oct. 4-5, and which has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.8 percentage points — comes after the financial crisis on Wall Street dominated the news, forced Congress to pass a costly rescue package and emerged as the No. 1 topic on the presidential campaign trail.
Response to the economic crisis
Voters, the survey finds, believe Obama responded to the crisis more effectively than McCain did. Thirty-four percent say they felt more reassured by Obama's approach, versus 29 percent who said they felt less reassured.
That's compared with just 25 percent who were reassured by McCain's response, versus 38 percent who were less reassured.
"What is apparent is that support for McCain has gone South based in part on his handling of the current economic situation," Hart observes.
That handling included stating — as he has before — that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong"; proposing a 9/11-type commission to investigate what went wrong, which he later abandoned; and declaring he would skip the first presidential debate until Congress acted on the economic crisis. He eventually backed away from that idea.
What's more, the poll shows Obama with a 17-point advantage over McCain in who would be better improving the economy (46-29 percent); a 15-point edge in handling the mortgage and housing crisis (42-27); an eight-point lead in dealing with energy and the cost of gas (42-34); and a six-point advantage in handling the Wall Street financial crisis (36-30).
McCain, meanwhile, holds a six-point edge over Obama when it comes to Iraq (47-41 percent), and the two candidates are tied on taxes (40-40).
The clear debate winner
The NBC/Journal poll also comes after the first presidential and vice-presidential debates. While analysts and pundits might disagree over the performances, the survey finds that there was a clear winner among voters: Obama-Biden.
By a 50-29 percent margin, respondents say Obama and Joe Biden bested their GOP opponents at the debates.
The second McCain-Obama showdown takes place on Tuesday night in Nashville, Tenn., and it will be moderated by NBC's Tom Brokaw.
In particular, Biden saw his poll numbers rise after his debate against Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Two weeks ago, 64 percent said that the Delaware senator was qualified to be president if the need arises. The number has now jumped to 74 percent.
By comparison, just 41 believe that Palin is qualified to be president, which is virtually unchanged from the last survey.
Voters' problem with Palin, Hart says, is: "'We like her; we just don't think she's qualified.'"
In addition to the economic crisis and his debate performance, Obama is benefiting from a shift in support among independents. Two weeks ago, the poll found that independents were breaking for McCain, 51-38 percent.
Now, it's Obama with a four-point lead among these voters, 42-38 percent.
It's not over
Despite Obama's lead, Hart cautions that the presidential race is far from over. For one thing, voters are angry — just 12 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction, the lowest mark ever on this question in the poll — and that anger could make for an unpredictable electorate.
Hart also warns that race could be problematic for Obama, who is trying to become the nation's first African-American president. In the poll, 35 percent are bothered by Obama's support from Al Sharpton and his association with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
(To put that number in perspective, however, 53 percent say they are bothered by the fact that former lobbyists are working for McCain's campaign.)
Still, Hart says he'd prefer to be in Obama's position right now. "I would not like to be in John McCain's shoes."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.