As they battle for Nevada’s five electoral votes, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is beating Republican John McCain, but a surprisingly large proportion of the state’s voters remained undecided as an especially intense race comes down to the wire, according to a new Review-Journal poll.
Obama had the support of 47 percent of likely voters and a 4-point lead over McCain, the choice of 43 percent, the poll, conducted last week by Washington, D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., found.
Eight percent of likely voters said they were still undecided. In other words, nearly one in 10 of those who are almost certain to cast ballots by Election Day still couldn’t say which candidate would get their vote.
Another 2 percent of those surveyed chose another candidate.
The poll of 625 likely voters throughout the state was conducted Tuesday and Wednesday.
The poll carries a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The Nevada poll was one of a suite of eight battleground state polls conducted by Mason-Dixon for newspapers and NBC News.
In seven states won twice by President Bush plus Pennsylvania, the race was close. Obama’s biggest lead was five points in another Western swing state, Colorado.
In Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia, Obama clung to narrow leads, while McCain was just barely ahead in Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio.
"McCain is basically battling in a lot of red states to try to pull them out, and that’s not a good sign," Mason-Dixon Managing Partner Brad Coker said of the polls. "Obama does not have to win all these states (to win the election). He only has to pick off a couple of them. McCain really has to win them all."
The new polls suggest that Nevada is one of the former Bush states most likely to swing to Obama’s column, Coker said.
"Colorado is probably his best opportunity to flip a state, and Nevada would probably be second," he said.
The Review-Journal’s last Nevada poll, conducted Oct. 8-9, found a similar result: Obama led by two points with the same level of support, 47 percent, while McCain’s percentage was slightly higher, 45 percent.
"Obama seems to be in a little stronger position now than before," Coker said. But the number of undecided voters, he said, is "higher than you would normally see" this close to Election Day. "Usually, by now, it’s down to 3 or 4 percent."
The high number of undecideds, and the fact Obama is below 50 percent, are encouraging signs for McCain in a poll that nonetheless shows the Republican likely to lose, said University of Nevada, Reno political scientist Eric Herzik.
Some other organizations’ recent polls have put Obama above 50 percent, he noted. "That’s where you want to be in politics," Herzik said. "It shows that people have made the commitment to you. All the undecideds can break for your opponent and you still win. More undecided gives McCain a little bit of hope."
Nonetheless, he said, for McCain, there’s no getting around the fact that this and every other recent Nevada poll has him on the losing end.
"As you get closer to Election Day, you don’t want to be on the wrong side of the equation," he said. "Candidates will say, ‘Oh, we’re within the margin of error,’ or ‘Oh, we have momentum,’ but you’re running out of time."
With early voting over the past two weeks showing Democrats thronging the polls in Clark and Washoe counties while more Republicans stay home, Obama’s chances in the Silver State are good, Herzik said.
Even though the poll showed Obama winning and McCain losing, it was McCain’s campaign that saw the numbers as encouraging, while Obama’s campaign viewed them with caution.
The responses were indicative of the weird psychology that has taken over the two sides in their final days, as the Democrats are leery of overconfidence and the Republicans are eager for glimmers of hope.
"This reflects what we’ve always felt about Nevada: This is a very close election that will come down to get-out-the-vote efforts on Tuesday, and our get-out-the-vote efforts on the Republican side are vastly superior to the Democrats’," McCain spokesman Rick Gorka said.
The number of undecided voters, Gorka maintained, "shows that a lot of folks are taking a hard look at this election and seeing a very strong difference between the two candidates. One wants to redistribute wealth and hurt small businesses; the other wants to encourage small business, which is the only thing keeping this economy moving at a snail’s pace the way it is."
Obama claims his tax proposals would result in a tax cut for 95 percent of working families and 98 percent of small businesses. McCain has suggested that hiking taxes on the few to help the many smacks of socialism.
"We’re going to carry Nevada, there’s no doubt about it," Gorka said. "Prepare to be amazed."
Obama spokeswoman Kirsten Searer said it’s clear that Nevadans have embraced Obama’s message of changing the country’s direction, "but we are working for every last vote down to Tuesday at 7 p.m. Nevada is a state that has a history of very close elections and this race is not decided by any means. We have a lot of work ahead of us."
Searer said the undecided voters were likely to come around to Obama in the end.
"We’ve seen more and more people who are concerned about the economy come our way when they learn about Senator Obama’s plan to cut taxes and help create jobs," she said.
The poll showed Obama gaining ground among many, but not all, key voter subgroups. (The smaller the group, the larger the statistical margin of error, so those breakdowns should not be seen as especially precise.)
•Among men, McCain led by just a point, 45 percent to 44 percent; three weeks ago, he led by 8, 50-42.
•Among women, Obama’s lead slipped from 12 points to nine; he led McCain, 50-41.
•Independent voters had moved toward Obama and away from McCain since the previous poll, which had shown McCain leading that crucial group 45-43; in the current poll Obama won independents 48-41.
•In Clark County, home to nearly 70 percent of the state’s voters and where early voting has been heavily Democratic, Obama led 54-37, up from 50-42 last time.
•Washoe County, the former Republican stronghold that’s now seen as the state’s key battleground, remained nearly tied with a slight edge for McCain, 45 percent to Obama’s 43 percent.
•McCain dominated heavily Republican rural Nevada 68-22, up from 55-38 three weeks ago. The rural counties contain less than 15 percent of the electorate.
•McCain led among white voters, 49-41, basically unchanged from the previous poll in which he won the group 50-41.
•Obama overwhelmingly won the black vote, 93-2. Blacks generally make up less than 10 percent of the electorate in Nevada.
•Obama had gained ground among Hispanic voters, whose participation is one of the election’s major wild cards, taking 63 percent of their votes to McCain’s 31 percent; in the last poll, Obama’s lead was 57-37.
•In the age categories, Obama continued to dominate 18- to 34-year-olds and to slightly lead 35- to 49-year-olds, while the two candidates were tied with 50- to 64-year-olds and McCain had the edge with those 65 and over.
One undecided likely voter late last week was Joe Marchione of Las Vegas, an 80-year-old registered Democrat who said he would wait until Election Day to vote because he just couldn’t make up his mind.
Marchione’s home is in foreclosure since he had to leave his casino job earlier this year when he began to lose his eyesight.
He watches cable news for hours every day and pronounces himself "disturbed by all the negativity."
Born in 1927 in Western Pennsylvania, Marchione can recall being a child during the Great Depression. He has voted in every election since he came of age and believes this to be the most important one of his lifetime and perhaps the last.
"I like a few of the things McCain says. I like the experience he has, though I think he is too eager to go to war," Marchione said. "McCain says he is going to cut taxes more, but they say it will go to the rich. The oil companies are making billions in profits. I’d rather see the money go to the lower and middle classes, not the fat cats that got us into this mess."
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.Battleground Summary (.pdf)