As the presidential candidates square off for the general election, Nevadans are closely divided between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, according to a statewide poll.
If the election were held today, 44 percent would vote for McCain, 42 percent for Obama, while 14 percent of likely voters remain undecided, according to the poll of 625 likely voters, conducted Monday through Wednesday by Washington, D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. for the Review-Journal and reviewjournal.com.
The presidential contest is well within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. It confirms the conventional wisdom that Nevada is a swing state that might throw its electoral votes to either candidate in November.
"It's a statistical tie. It's a toss-up," said pollster Brad Coker, managing partner of Mason-Dixon. "Nevada is a battleground. It's clearly a state both candidates, both campaigns, both parties are going to pay a lot of attention to.
With five months until Election Day, a lot can and will happen, Coker noted. But the poll shows that the two candidates begin the general election season evenly matched in Nevada, a state that has voted for the winner of every presidential race with the exception of 1976.
The poll found that as far as Nevada voters are concerned, Obama appears to be better off without his erstwhile rival, Hillary Clinton, on the ticket.
Asked what effect having Clinton as the Democratic vice presidential candidate would have on their vote, 19 percent of Nevadans said it would make them more likely to vote for Obama, while 28 percent said they would be less likely to vote for him. Fifty-one percent said it would have no effect.
Among undecided voters, 25 percent said Clinton's presence would make them more inclined to vote for the Democratic ticket, but 38 percent said she would make them less likely to vote Democratic.
"Those numbers are real clear that she doesn't help the ticket," Coker said. "The undecided voters especially are more likely to vote against him, and he can't afford that."
A spokesman for the McCain campaign noted that Obama had campaigned and organized heavily in Nevada in advance of the Jan. 19 caucuses, yet failed to build a lead against McCain.
"It's very early and we're not going to take anything for granted, but we feel Senator McCain's message plays especially well here," Rick Gorka said.
"Nevada is a maverick, independent state. I don't think Nevadans feel that government should continually raise taxes and increase spending. When it comes down to John McCain's message of fiscal responsibility versus the Democratic message of raising taxes, Nevadans are going to realize they'd rather have their own money."
But an Obama campaign spokeswoman said McCain's policies would be rejected by Nevada voters in the end. Shannon Gilson pointed to the record 118,000 participants in the Jan. 19 caucuses, the majority of whom chose Clinton over Obama.
"Nevadans stood up for change in record numbers in January, and they know that a candidate who is offering more of the same failed Bush economic policies that benefit the wealthiest Americans isn't the change we need," Gilson said.
The poll, she said, clearly shows that Nevada is a battleground state.
"We will be building on our statewide network of volunteers and supporters from Las Vegas to Elko to put together an aggressive general election campaign and work hard for every vote between now and November."
The poll's breakdown into gender, party, regional, ethnic and age groups gives an indicator of the sources of the two candidates' support.
The candidates' appeal to different age groups is especially striking. Obama did better with young voters, while McCain prevailed among older voters.
Voters age 18 to 34 preferred Obama by a wide margin, 55 percent to 31 percent. Among voters age 35 to 49, the two candidates were tied at 43 percent each. But McCain was preferred by voters 50 to 64, 48 percent to 39 percent, and by voters 65 and older, 50 percent to 34 percent.
"Obama winning the youth vote is not surprising, but he's got to keep them motivated, because they tend to turn out in lower numbers," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter in Washington, D.C.
"They're tied in that middle tier, and that could be where it's decided."
Duffy said it was somewhat surprising to see McCain winning older voters by such a healthy margin. In national surveys, she said, the 71-year-old McCain has sometimes faced an age issue with "those older voters who don't think they could do it."
In another crucial demographic, Obama, 46, prevails among Hispanic voters, with 53 percent, but nearly one-fifth are undecided and McCain still draws 28 percent.
Hispanics are likely to be targeted by both campaigns as a perceived swing vote group, Duffy said. McCain already has aired ads on Spanish-language radio in Nevada.
Obama runs away with the black vote, 87 percent to 7 percent, while McCain gets a majority of white voters, 51 percent to Obama's 35 percent.
McCain was stronger among men, 49 percent to 37 percent, while Obama was stronger with women, 47 percent to 39 percent.
Obama won Clark County, predominantly Democratic and home to 70 percent of the state's population, by a margin of 46 percent to 39 percent in the poll. The two candidates were close in Republican-leaning Washoe County, 45 percent for McCain versus 42 percent.
In the rock-ribbed Republican rural areas of the state, McCain took 60 percent of the vote in the poll to Obama's 27 percent.
McCain, who has been able to lay claim to his party's nomination longer than Obama, sewed up 78 percent of the Republican vote, while Obama had 71 percent of Democrats.
With 15 percent of Democrats saying they'll vote for McCain and another 14 percent undecided, that's 29 percent of his own party not currently supporting Obama, a high number that Duffy said might be the residual effect of Clinton's candidacy.
Both candidates have staked their campaigns on their appeal to voters who aren't registered with a political party. In that group, McCain polled markedly better than Obama, 43 percent to 32 percent.
A larger proportion of independents, 25 percent, were undecided than any other demographic group in the poll.
Pollster Coker said that with Democrats ahead in voter registration in Nevada and the national mood hostile to Republicans, McCain will have to hold on to his lead among independents in order to have a chance in the state.
"This race is going to be a battle for independents, and right now, in the battle for independents, McCain is ahead," he said.
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.