Less than six months from the November election, Sen. John McCain is tied with Sen. Hillary Clinton among rural voters in battleground states while the Arizona Republican holds a nine point lead over Sen. Barack Obama.

McCain leads Obama 50 percent to 41 percent among rural voters polled in 13 states that are expected to be closely contested in November. McCain and Clinton are tied, each with 46 percent of the vote. Only four percent of the people polled said they were undecided.

Full poll results can be found here.

The poll was conducted in mid-May by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the Center for Rural Strategies, the Kentucky nonprofit organization that publishes The Daily Yonder. The poll interviewed 682 likely voters in 13 states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin). The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.75 percent.

Rural voters see stark differences between McCain and Obama on the issues of the economy and “values.” More than half of rural voters (54 percent) agree that McCain “does not seem to understand my economic problems.” A nearly equal percentage of rural voters (52 percent) agreed that Obama “does not share my values.”

The outcome of the election may depend on which of these issues will have become more important to voters by November, according to Republican Bill Greener and Democrat Anna Greenberg, who conducted the poll.

The findings of this poll are strikingly similar to the results of a poll taken four years ago. In June of 2004, President George W. Bush led Sen. John Kerry 51 percent to 42 percent — the same nine point gap that now separates McCain and Obama.

Bush went on to win rural voters by 19 percentage points, a margin he needed from rural America to insure his re-election.

(See also Karen Crummy’s story on the rural poll in the Denver Post, and Howard Berkes’ story on National Public Radio.)

The election in November is likely to be determined by whether McCain can raise his level of support in rural areas to Bush’s margins, according to the two consultants who devised the poll.

A sign that greeted Sen. John McCain when he visited a sporting goods store this week in St. Albans, West Virginia.

Republican strategist Bill Greener and Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said this poll showed that “rural America will be competitive in the 2008 presidential election….This competitiveness reflects the on-going problems facing the Republican brand, as well as the deep economic anxiety large numbers of rural voters feel. Concerns about the cost of living are intense, particularly gas prices in a part of the country where many must drive long distances to work.”

The poll reveals that none of the three candidates finds particular favor among rural voters. In 2004, 35 percent of rural voters in swing states felt “cool” toward President Bush and 43 percent felt “cool” toward Sen. Kerry.

Today, 59 percent of voters feel “cool” towards the President. Reporting their feelings about the 2008 candidates, 47 percent of those polled felt “cool” toward Sen. Clinton, toward Sen. Obama — 42 percent, toward Sen. McCain — 40 percent. “(W)e see real ambivalence about all of three presidential choices — each candidate has a real opportunity to define the race on his or her terms,” write Greenberg and Greener.

Greener and Greenberg say rural voters “express doubts about both McCain and Obama.” For instance, 60 percent of women without a college education believe McCain does not understand their economic problems. Meanwhile, 48 percent of white Democrats agree that Obama does not share their values.

Nearly a fifth of those in the polls (18 percent) do not know which candidate would do a better job of solving rural America’s problems.

Obama appears to face a particularly hard time hanging on to rural Democratic voters. Of rural voters who identified themselves as Democrats, 90 percent said they would vote for Senator Clinton; only 70 percent said they would vote for Obama. McCain wins only 7 percent of the Democratic rural vote in a hypothetical race against Clinton. When the Arizona Republican is matched against Obama, however, McCain is supported by 20 percent of those who call themselves Democrats.

Nine out of ten Republicans support McCain when he’s matched against either Obama or Clinton.

In the 12 contested states polled, there are large regional differences in rural support for the candidates. Obama loses to Clinton by 24 points in the rural South; by 16 points in the eastern Midwest and by about five points in the Northeast and western Midwest.

Obama loses all these regions to McCain, too, and by similar margins. Obama is particularly weak in the eastern Midwest, a region that includes the swing states of Wisconsin and Ohio. Obama is down by 15 points to McCain in this part of the country, a deficit nearly as large as the 17-point margin enjoyed by McCain in the South.

Sen. Obama’s strongest support is centered in the western states, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. There, Obama runs ahead of Clinton by 16 points among rural voters, and he is beating McCain by 13 points in these western swing states. Nationally, when asked who would do a better job on the economy, Obama runs 8 points ahead of McCain. On the same question in the West, Obama is ahead of McCain by 36 points.

Among the subset of rural residents who derive all of their income from agriculture, McCain trounces both Clinton (by 24 points) and Obama (by 28 points).

Rural residents by far believe the most pressing problem in the economy is high energy costs — the primary factor, they say, in the rising cost of food.

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