With Wall Street in turmoil and the economy hurting, whichever presidential candidate convinces a swath of persuadable voters that he gets it — and can be trusted to lead the country back to fiscal stability — could well win the White House.
A recent poll found that 18 percent of likely voters are up for grabs — undecided or willing to change their minds — little more than five weeks before Americans choose between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.
A large chunk of these voters say they are hurting on a personal level from the country's economic woes, and, like everyone else, they say the economy is the top issue. Most haven't decided who would best solve their problems as president; neither candidate has an advantage on handling the economy.
Simply put: Most of these voters are looking for a better life and a leader to help make it happen — and most haven't found what they seek in Obama or McCain.
Tough times, tough crowd.
Historically, the ruling party loses the White House when the economy is bad, and it's rare for voters to keep the same party in power for three straight terms. But the poll, conducted by Knowledge Networks, shows that Obama still hasn't sealed the deal and McCain still has a shot after eight years of President Bush.
National surveys indicate a competitive race, meaning persuadable voters could affect the outcome. Thus, both campaigns are pouring millions of dollars into advertising with precisely targeted pitches aimed at this small slice of the electorate.
Generally, these up-for-grabs voters are harder to find because they are not hard-core partisans and are less likely to report being contacted by the campaigns. That indicates that retail politics could play an important role. Still, moving them to one camp or the other is no easy task.
The key to unlocking the support of persuadable voters may be this: convincing them that one candidate alone has the ability to identify, understand and fix the country's ills, especially the economy.
These voters view McCain as far more qualified than Obama, with 82% saying the four-term Arizona senator has the experience to be a good president compared with 37% for the first-term Illinois senator. However, these voters don't see either candidate as more likely to understand the problems the country faces.
Overall, many voters say they are personally struggling because of the economic woes — but persuadable voters say they are really hurting.
The economy has been voters' top concern for months, though the candidates have only put it on the front burner as the country's fiscal health took a major hit.
Persuadable voters give McCain and Obama even marks on the economy, as well as other financial issues, including Social Security, gas prices, the budget deficit and housing prices.
Among these uncommitted voters, McCain leads on Iraq, terrorism, taxes, corruption, immigration and gun rights, while Obama has an edge on health care, gay marriage, the environment, stem-cell research, racial equality and education.
The Midwest is home to more of these up-for-grabs voters — Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Among these undecided voters, Democrats are much less intensely behind Obama than Republicans are behind McCain. Obama appears to have more people on the bubble, and many of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's former backers haven't fully committed, while McCain's backers are hard-core Republicans and excited by his running mate selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Both Obama and McCain have been aggressively competing for would-be Clinton voters through direct appeals in advertising to working-class whites and women as well as numerous visits to states that the New York senator won in the drawn-out Democratic primary.