A record number of Americans say winning the war in Iraq is not necessary for the broader U.S. campaign against terrorism to succeed, countering John McCain's view of the conflict and aiding his Democratic opponents' chances in November.
Deep concern about the economy also works for the Democrats, and it's an even more dominant issue; 90 percent say it's in bad shape and nearly eight in 10 don't believe the government's stimulus checks will help. But McCain pushes back strongly enough on other issues to keep the contest a close one, this ABC News/Washington Post poll finds.
All told, six in 10 Americans cite either the economy or the war as the most important issue in their vote for president, and they favor Barack Obama, by 18 points, or Hillary Clinton, by 11, over McCain. Among the remaining four in 10 who cite other issues, however, McCain holds 14- and 23-point leads over Obama and Clinton, respectively.
These divisions underscore the likely strategies of the candidates in the months ahead; no wonder, for example, that McCain gave a major speech on the economy this week, seeking to level the field on that issue.
IRAQ – Of the two, Iraq may be the tougher challenge for McCain: A supporter of the war, he's argued that success there is necessary for the United States' broader interests. But in this poll Americans by a record 2-1 margin, 61-31 percent, say winning in Iraq is not necessary to defeating terrorism more generally. That view's evolved since January 2007, when the public divided evenly on the question.
People who see the war in Iraq as essential to countering terrorism are among McCain's strongest supporters; he leads either Obama or Clinton in this group by more than 3-1. Among the six in 10 with the opposite view, however, he trails by 35 and 23 points, respectively.
That perhaps could turn if basic views of the war change. But they've seemed fixed in cement for more than a year: In this poll, 64 percent of Americans said the war was not worth fighting, almost precisely the average in a dozen ABC/Post polls in the past 14 months. It been a steady majority for nearly 3½ years, and opposition is more intense, with strong opponents of the war outnumbering strong supporters by 2-1.
Despite successes of the surge in U.S. forces, moreover, 57 percent now say the United States is not making significant progress restoring civil order in Iraq, up 6 points from last month. And 56 percent say the United States should withdraw even if civil order is not restored, a number that tipped to a majority in January 2007 and has stayed there ever since. In spring 2004, by contrast, the public, by 2-1, opposed withdrawing in the absence of civil order.
IMPORTANCE – Asked, in an open-ended question, the most important issue in their vote, 41 percent of Americans said the economy, 18 percent the Iraq war, with the remaining four in 10 dispersed among a range of answers. That marks dramatic growth in concern about the economy, and a concomitant decline for Iraq, since last fall.
As noted, Obama and Clinton both lead McCain among voters focused on the economy or the war; McCain leads among others.
These views are driven to a large extent by partisanship: Democrats (and Democratic-leaning independents) are much more likely than Republicans to pick either the economy or the war as their top issue; and partisan self-identification as usual is the single best predictor of vote preference.
Even without naming specific candidates, Americans by 55-34 percent say a Democratic president would do better than a Republican handling the economy, and by a similar 52-35 percent margin people pick a Democrat to better handle the situation in Iraq.
ECONOMY – The bleak economic ratings are no surprise. The weekly ABC News Consumer Confidence Index hit a 14-year low Tuesday; 73 percent of Americans say the economy's getting worse, the most since late 1990.
The government's forthcoming economic stimulus -- rebate checks and tax breaks for businesses -- may be too little, too late; the number of Americans who don't think it'll help avoid or ease a recession has grown from 67 percent in February to 79 percent now. Only 17 percent now think the stimulus will help, down from 28 percent.
Indeed, the intended stimulating effect of the rebate checks is hardly a slam dunk: Just a quarter of Americans say they'll spend the money; most instead plan on socking it into savings (32 percent) or using it to pay existing bills (31 percent). These intentions haven't changed since February.
GAS – One of the most tangible economic complaints is the price of gasoline. Two-thirds of Americans say it's causing them financial hardship, a scant 3 points from the record high in 2006. And 38 percent say it's a serious hardship.
The pain hits lower-income Americans hardest. In poor families, with less than $20,000 in annual income, 66 percent report serious hardship as a result of rising gas prices. In working class families, with incomes from $20,000 to $50,000, it's 44 percent. That eases to 35 percent in middle class families, 25 percent in the upper middle, and just 15 percent of those at the top end, with more than $100,000 in household income.
Republicans, who tend to be better off, are much less likely to report serious financial hardship (28 percent, versus four in 10 Democrats and independents alike). Beyond income groups, serious hardship peaks among African-Americans, less educated adults and unmarried women -- all more Democratic than Republican populations.
THE NEXT YEAR – There is increasing pessimism about the national economy in the coming year, but a reserve of financial optimism remains at the individual level. Nearly six in 10 Americans are pessimistic about the state of the national economy in the next 12 months, the most in polls since 2003 and up 7 points from February.
Many fewer, 32 percent, are pessimistic about their own family's financial situation, about the same as in February, but twice as high as its low in 2006. Substantial research, however, suggests that Americans are more apt to vote on their view of the national economy than on the basis of their personal well-being -- a sociotropic rather than purely self-interested model.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 10-13, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,197 adults, including an oversample of African-Americans for a total of 213 and an oversample of Catholics for a total of 292 (both weighted to their correct share of the national population). The results have a 3-point error margin for the full sample. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.