POLL: Transformed by Iowa and N.H., '08 Kicks Off as a Free-for-All

Iowa and New Hampshire have transformed the 2008 presidential race into a free-for-all, vaulting John McCain past longtime frontrunner Rudy Giuliani in the Republican contest and fueling a strong challenge to Hillary Clinton by Barack Obama among Democrats.

McCain's victory in New Hampshire has sharply boosted views of his qualifications and abilities alike: His rating within his party as its most electable contender has tripled; as strongest leader, it's doubled; and he's scored double-digit gains in trust to handle Iraq and terrorism. He's climbed into the lead in overall vote preference for the first time in ABC News/Washington Post polls in the 2008 campaign.

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Obama likewise is reaping benefits from winning the Iowa caucuses and coming within two points of Clinton in New Hampshire. He now challenges her as the most electable candidate. He's severely eroded her reputation as its strongest leader and sharply improved his trust to handle key issues. And in overall preference Clinton and Obama now are all but tied, 42-37 percent among likely voters, a dramatic tightening.

An important question is how well both McCain and Obama's newfound popularity translates in the state-by-state slog of primaries. McCain's gained more ground among independents and moderates than among the conservatives and mainline Republicans at the party's core -- the bridge he failed to cross in 2000. And his age is a potential problem; three in 10 Americans say it dampens their enthusiasm for him.

Like McCain, Obama's gains have come more among independents than among his party's regulars, and he remains notably vulnerable on experience. But he's also soared in a key Democratic group -- African-Americans, who've switched from favoring Clinton by 52-39 percent a month ago to an even larger preference for Obama, 60-32 percent, today.

While Obama also has drawn much closer among whites, preferences of blacks are highly significant in some upcoming races; in the past blacks have accounted for 47 percent of Democratic voters in South Carolina (Jan. 26) and Georgia (Feb. 5), 46 percent in Louisiana (Feb. 9) and more than a third in Virginia and Maryland (Feb. 12).

VOTE PREFERENCE -- The changes in overall preferences in both races are remarkable. Among Democratic likely voters, Obama's gained 14 points and Clinton's lost 11 since the last ABC/Post poll, completed Dec. 9. John Edwards is flat, at 11 percent support.

Given sample sizes, Clinton's 5-point advantage over Obama is not statistically significant at the customary 95 percent confidence level; it's 75 percent likely to be a real lead. She still leads among women, but now by 11 points, vs. a vast 39 points last month. And Obama now leads nationally among men, 9 points ahead of Clinton.

In the Republican contest, McCain does have a significant lead, with 28 percent support among likely Republican primary voters, more than double his 12 percent a month ago. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are little changed, at 20 percent and 19 percent respectively. But Giuliani's lost 10 points, dropping to 15 percent support, and Thompson's down to 8 percent -- for both, their lowest of the campaign so far.

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