This bipartisan survey was sponsored by the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonpartisan group trying to attract attention to rural issues. The polling was conducted by the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research in collaboration with Republican political consultant Bill Greener of Greener and Hook.
It surveyed 841 likely voters in rural counties from Oct. 1 through 21. The counties were located in 13 states considered battleground states at the beginning of the polling period. Those states are New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.
Given the three-week time frame for polling, this survey should not be considered a standard "snapshot" poll, which typically measures the beliefs of respondents during a three-day period. It does not reflect where the rural voters stood the day the poll was completed, but where they stood during the three weeks polling was conducted.
The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.38 percentage points.
Republican John McCain was doing so poorly among a key voter group during the first three weeks of October, it seemed unlikely he could capture the presidency.
That's what a newly released survey indicates.
The poll of 841 likely voters in rural counties in battleground states was conducted during a three-week period from October 1-21. Rural voters were instrumental in the election and re-election of President Bush, and big Republican margins in rural areas are considered critical to a John McCain victory next month.
The survey had Democrat Barack Obama slightly ahead, 46 to 45 percent, among the rural voters polled. That's a statistical dead heat during the survey period.
"That is really bad news for John McCain. If the rural vote is essentially split in these swing states, then John McCain is certain to lose," says Seth McKee, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. McKee specializes in rural voting patterns.
"In 2004, George Bush won the rural parts of the battleground [states] by 15 points," notes Anna Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who conducted the bipartisan survey. "It was his base, and he got a massive amount of voters to turn out in those battleground states. It drove his victory."
But in 2008, Greenberg says, "John McCain is struggling just to win the rural vote in the battleground. That was supposed to be his base. If he can't win the rural battleground with substantial margins ... it seems very unlikely that he can win this election."
Republican media consultant Bill Greener was part of the bipartisan polling team, but he has a different analysis of the survey results. He sees the three-week period of the survey as distinct from the two weeks remaining in the campaign.
"What the survey indicates is that there was defection among rural voters largely on economic issues," Greener says. "And if that [continues] to be the case, then Sen. McCain would face a tremendous challenge to prevail on Election Day. That's what the three-week data shows you."
But more recent and shorter surveys generally show a tighter race, Greener says, and that means McCain likely is doing better among rural voters than the rural poll indicates.
A new Associated Press-GfK survey, for example, shows how complicated this mix of polling data can get. The AP-GfK survey spanned five days (October 16-20) and included likely rural voters. They favored McCain by 18 points. But those voters were from all states, not just battleground states, where the race is tighter by definition. They identified themselves as urban, suburban or rural, instead of being classified by pollsters based on their actual location and accepted definitions of rural. Some "rural" respondents were possibly suburban or exurban. And fewer than 270 likely rural voters were included in the five-day survey — a relatively small sample size that greatly increases the margin of error.
The three-week rural survey found that 49 percent of respondents favored Obama on the issue of the economy, compared with 40 percent for McCain. Obama was trusted by slightly more people on the issue of taxes and on the nation's financial crisis.
McCain "is a loser on the most important issue," McKee says. Obama "has a 9 percentage-point lead on the economy. So he's got a comfortable lead on the issue that's going to drive this election more than any other."
Greener is not giving up on McCain's chances among rural voters. "I absolutely believe he has a chance to win," Greener says emphatically. "Sen. McCain has to continue to grow his support among rural voters and hold that support."
The survey indicated that the Arizona senator's strength lies in his approach to the war in Iraq. More than half of the respondents said McCain would do a better job with the situation in Iraq.
Respondents offered mixed messages about Obama's ability to be president. Fifty-three percent agreed with the statement that Obama "has what it takes to be president." But about half also agreed with the statement that there are "just too many questions to take a chance on him as president," and that the Illinois senator "lacks experience necessary to be president."
The survey did not ask about moral values, gun control, abortion or gay rights, which were key issues for many rural voters in the past two presidential elections.
There was one question about McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin. The Alaska governor has bolstered McCain's support among conservative rural voters. In a rural battleground survey last month, 48 percent of the respondents responded favorably to Palin. But this month, only 40 percent gave her a favorable response.
McKee speculates that the nation's economic crisis, the war in Iraq and disappointment with the Bush presidency may be taking a long-term toll on the rural Republican base, especially beyond Southern states.
"I think it's very possible that these rural folks who live above the Mason-Dixon Line could be ripe to move ... away from the Republican Party," McKee says.