The Challenges Ahead: Polls Point to Candidates' Future Hurdles

Exit polls identify candidates' weaknesses as well as their strengths. Per the Super Tuesday data, what challenges do the presidential contenders face in the contests ahead? A summary follows.

McCAIN — John McCain's chief challenge remains expanding his support to the conservative core of the GOP, particularly "very" conservative voters. Can and will the party be energized behind its nominee if he's inadequate or barely adequate to the base?

As we've noted, in all primaries yesterday, conservatives — 63 percent of all voters — went 39-32-23 percent, Romney-McCain-Huckabee. McCain actually won "somewhat" conservative voters by 7 points, but he lost "very" conservatives by a wide margin, 45 percent for Mitt Romney, 30 percent for Mike Huckabee, just 19 percent for McCain.

Looking at mainstream Republicans versus independents also illustrates the problem. McCain won independents by 14 points, 41-27 over Romney, with 16 percent for Huckabee. McCain won Republicans but just by 5 points, 40-35 percent, with 20 percent for Huckabee. If Huckabee hadn't been there to peel away some of those conservatives and Republicans, Romney could've had a much better night.

Appeal to the middle puts McCain in a good position for a general election — but he still will need the party base to energize behind him, to avoid getting swamped by turnout.

Looking at some of this in McCain's home state illustrates Arizona conservatives went 43-40 percent, Romney-McCain — close, but this is the home state. And "very conservatives" went 53-22 percent for Romney. This also played out on the issue of immigration, which ranked as high as the economy in Arizona; immigration voters went to Romney.

Another issue for McCain, albeit not in the exit poll, is his age. As we covered last night, it's the biggest net negative we've measured for any candidate. One point from the exit poll, under 30s split three ways in GOP primaries yesterday — McCain's weakest age group.

ROMNEY— Romney's biggest problem is Huckabee, who's Hoovering up conservatives and Republicans whom Romney needs; and evangelicals, a sizable chunk – 43 percent of all voters, peaking in the South — that has not especially warmed to him. Overall, Romney did 9 points better with nonevangelicals (36 percent) than with evangelicals (27 percent).

His particular problem is with southern evangelicals. They made up 70 percent of voters in the five Southern GOP primaries, and Romney got only 21 percent of them; Southern evangelicals broke 45-29-21 percent, Huckabee-McCain-Romney.

HUCKABEE — Huckabee's biggest problem is getting outside his Southern evangelical base. Aggregating Southern states, the overall vote was 37-33-24, Huckabee-McCain-Romney. Aggregating the rest of the country, Huckabee got just 12 percent — the vote outside the South was 43-35-12, McCain-Romney-Huckabee, a vast difference for the Arkansan.

CLINTON — The biggest problem for Hillary Clinton is the "agent of change" mantle that Barack Obama wears. It has been far and away the most important candidate attribute among Democrats in every primary to date (and primaries tend to be about personal attributes much more than they are about issues), and Obama simply owns it.

Across Democratic primaries yesterday, 52 percent said they cared most about the candidate who "can bring about needed change," more than twice as many as picked the No. 2 attribute, experience (23 percent). And Obama won those "change" voters by more than 2-1, 67 percent to 30 percent.

Clinton also needs to shed her reputation as a lightning rod for partisanship. When Democrats yesterday were asked which candidate can do more to "unite the country," it was 50 percent for Obama, 39 percent for Clinton.

Among population groups, Clinton displayed weakness among white men; they split narrowly for Obama, 48-46 percent, while she won white women by 24 points, 60-36 percent. In previous primaries aggregated, by contrast, white men voted 42-23-20 percent, Clinton-Obama-Edwards.

For a state-specific example, Clinton's weakness among white men can be illustrated in California, where they broke 55-35 percent for Obama.

OBAMA — Winning white voters — particularly white women — is Obama's biggest challenge; he also needs to improve among Hispanics, and to establish that he has adequate experience for the presidency — to convince voters he'd be a steady hand at the tiller.

Whites accounted for 61 percent of Democratic voters Tuesday, and Clinton won them overall by 12 points, 53-41 percent. Whites, naturally, trend to make up a larger share of the general election electorate, 77 percent in 2004.

Hispanics accounted for 16 percent of Democratic voters — they were about as numerous as blacks, 17 percent — and they went heavily for Clinton, 63-35 percent, a big chunk of votes for Obama to lose.

On experience, nearly a quarter of Democratic voters picked it as the top attribute, and Obama's weakness in this group is glaring — they went 91-5 percent for Clinton. That carries over to some policy issues — Clinton won by 8 points among voters who cared most about the economy (the top issue), and by 12 points among health care voters. Related to experience overall, convincing voters of his abilities at economic stewardship is a key job for Obama.

Obama beat Clinton by a dozen points among voters concerned most about the Iraq war. But in another result that cuts to experience, Clinton led him, 51-37 percent, as best qualified to be commander in chief.

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