A surge of Democratic allegiance is boosting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton alike in match-ups against John McCain, with change vs. experience as the roadmap for voter preferences in the 2008 general election.
Obama's advantage over McCain is the bigger one in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, a 12-point lead compared to Clinton's 6-point edge. McCain's endorsement by George W. Bush may not help: The president's back at his career low approval rating, matching Harry Truman in long-term unpopularity.
The results of this poll overall offer a roadmap to likely themes in the general election. Foremost are competing desires for the future: Americans divide evenly on "new ideas and new direction" vs. "strength and experience" in a candidate. Against McCain, Obama wins 80 percent of new direction voters; Clinton, 65 percent. Voters more focused on experience instead go to McCain, by 2-1 over Clinton and by 3-1 over Obama.
There's huge polarization in these choices: Seventy percent of Republicans call strength and experience more important; 60 percent of Democrats care more about a new direction. Independents – the quintessential swing voters – tilt to "new direction" by 47-38 percent. Those are the voters the candidates will try hardest to move their way.
Voter attention is high: Eighty-four percent of Americans are following the race very or somewhat closely, compared with 75 percent four years ago and 61 percent eight years ago. The increase has come especially among young adults – up 13 points compared with 2004 – and political moderates, up 15 points.
McCAIN – A steady hand in an uncertain world is the newly minted Republican nominee's clear pitch; tested against Democratic delegate-leader Obama, McCain holds huge leads on knowledge of world affairs and as better able to deal with terrorism. Obama offers a very different profile, with his biggest lead on the issue of health care and on attributes such as personality and temperament, empathy and a vision for the future.
But McCain is losing three in 10 conservatives to either Obama or Clinton, far more than he likely could stand to see slip away. Democratic presidential candidates since 1988 have won 15 to 20 percent of conservatives, not 30 percent.
That poses a potentially difficult straddle for McCain – reassuring conservatives on his right without alienating moderates and independents in the center. Currently many more Americans call Obama "about right" ideologically, 56 percent, than McCain, 41 percent.
BUSH – Today's endorsement by Bush may not do wonders for McCain: The president has a 32 percent job approval rating, matching his career low, outdone among postwar presidents only by Truman, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
While 65 percent of Republicans approve, that's a new low for Bush within his own party. His approval drops to 9 percent among Democrats and 32 percent among independents.
Bush's support has been as steady as it is low, between 32 and 36 percent in more than a dozen ABC/Post polls since December 2006. He hasn't seen majority approval in 38 months, matching Truman's record from 1949-1952.