POLL: A Tight Fight for Clinton/Obama While McCain Extends his Surge

Days before nearly half the country votes in the Super Tuesday primaries, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are locked in a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination, their competing themes of experience vs. change now precisely dividing their party.

John McCain, for his part, has vaulted to a 2-1 advantage in the Republican race in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, continuing a remarkable surge that began with his New Hampshire and South Carolina victories. Yet his support is comparatively soft, especially in some core GOP groups.

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Attention to both races is high, with 81 percent of Americans closely following the campaign, slightly more than during the 2004 primaries (when only the Democrats had a contest). But there's also broad distaste with the tone of the campaign: Americans by a wide 61-34 percent say the candidates have spent more time arguing unnecessarily than discussing real issues.

The most dramatic change has been in the Republican race, marked by McCain's sharp advance. Forty-eight percent of likely Republican voters nationally now support him for their party's nomination, up from 28 percent just after his New Hampshire victory and 12 percent, his low of the cycle, in early December -- an astonishing turnaround.

In the Democratic contest Clinton has 47 percent support, Obama 43 percent, with supporters of the now-withdrawn John Edwards seemingly dividing about evenly between them. Their race is very similar now to the last ABC/Post poll Jan. 12; while McCain has extended his surge, Obama's faced tougher resistance.

REPS -- On the Republican side, McCain appears to have gained the most from the departure of Rudy Giuliani, the long-time frontrunner in national polls until his strategy of eschewing the early contests imploded with his loss in Florida.

The two had competed for a similar pool of voters, focused on moderates and independents; in a could-have-been post mortem, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say by 66-26 percent that Giuliani wasn't a bad candidate, but a good candidate with a bad strategy.

With Giuliani gone, McCain now has double the support of his closest competitor, Mitt Romney, with Mike Huckabee at 16 percent. But there are compunctions: Just 38 percent of McCain voters "strongly" support him, and his backing from conservative Republicans is far lower than it is among moderates.

His lead disappears entirely among those who call themselves "very" conservative, just over a quarter of the party, and it's 21 points lower among evangelicals than among non-evangelical Republicans.

Nonetheless, McCain has made strides in these groups. His support from conservatives has grown from 15 percent in December to 25 percent in January and 37 percent now; among evangelicals, 12 percent in December, 25 percent last month, 33 percent now.

Perhaps most important, while he still does best among independents, among mainstream Republicans he's advanced from 13 percent in December to 25 percent last month and 48 percent today -- critical growth in the party's core.

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