State of Play: Obama

Aug 5, 2008 1:19pm

A poll late last week noted no immediate change in views of Barack Obama’s foreign policy skills as a result of his trip abroad. That was reassuring, because it fits with the best construct of how public opinion works.

We too often expect knee-jerk reactions to events of the day; rarely, in fact, do we see them. With few exceptions public opinion proceeds, instead, by a process known as considered judgment: People obtain information as it develops, evaluate it, let it accumulate to the point that it warrants reconsideration of existing attitudes, and at that point re-evaluate and either maintain or change their views.

Attitudes, this means, are far less flighty or reactive to individual events than is commonly assumed; for the most part they are, actually, rational. Obama's trip, like everything else he's doing – and ditto for John McCain – are therefore about building a case, not about changing daily numbers (which, at this stage, are fundamentally silly).

Rather than watch for coughs and hiccups in the data, we can reach a better understanding of Obama’s side of the contest by drawing together key threads we’ve collected over time. A summary follows; I’ll together pull a similar summary on McCain soon.

As we suggested in one of our poll analyses earlier this summer, the chief puzzler of Obama’s candidacy is why, given his broad advantage on a range of domestic issues and the Republicans’ various weaknesses, he isn’t doing better against McCain than he is. The main answer is his relative inexperience – and it’s a major challenge.

Here’s one telling result: Forty-six percent of Americans said Obama does not have the kind of experience it takes to serve effectively as president. (Fifty percent said he does). That is an awful lot of people to lose on a question of basic qualifications for office.

Relatedly, 46 percent characterized Obama as a “risky” choice for president (although nearly as many, 42 percent, said the same about McCain.) And note the interaction: Among people who say Obama’s not experienced enough, three-quarters see him as a risky choice.

Concerns about Obama’s experience are reflected particularly in ratings of his readiness to handle foreign affairs, to serve as commander-in-chief and to deal with the war in Iraq. Just 48 percent see him as a good commander-in-chief, vs. 72 percent for McCain. McCain leads Obama by 63-26 percent as having “better knowledge of world affairs” and by 71-18 percent as having “the better experience to be president.”

Experience is important; even with very broad and deep dissatisfaction with the country’s current situation (the economy, the war, the president’s leadership), Americans divide essentially evenly on which is more important, “strength and experience” (46 percent) or “a new direction and new ideas” (47 percent).

The “new direction/new ideas” theme is part of Obama’s appeal to younger adults. But older voters are less receptive to the idea – and it’s older voters who more reliably turn out. Obama has more than a 2-1 lead over McCain among under 30s. But that drops sharply among older Americans – and that’s why the race is closer once you narrow it to likely voters. A campaign whose chance of victory is based on young voters is a hazardous one; ask John Kerry.

An associated challenge for Obama is the fact that “change,” the theme of his campaign, can be a double-edge sword. Some other attributes – e.g. experience – are flatly positive. “Change,” by contrast, can be for the good or for the bad. Just 47 percent of Americans say Obama has done enough to explain what he means by “change.” And again this goes especially soft among older adults. Fifty-six percent of seniors think he hasn’t done enough to define “change,” and it’s about as high among those 50 and up.

Obama has many other things going for him – significantly, but not only, his advantage on most domestic issues, dissatisfaction with the current administration and a resulting advantage in Democratic Party allegiance. He does better on most personal attributes as well. Seventy-nine percent of Americans see him as an optimist, vs. 54 percent for McCain. Fifty-six percent say he shares their values, vs. 47 percent for McCain. He leads McCain on bringing needed change, on having the better personality and temperament, on having a clearer vision and on empathy for “the problems of people like you.” While 49 percent see him as a flip-flopper, McCain does essentially no better on this measure.

We haven't seen Obama’s race as a major factor; see our analysis from June 22, but in short, while some whites are less apt to vote for him because of his race, others are more apt to vote for him for that reason, and the net is that Obama’s support among whites (also among Hispanics) is typical for a Democratic presidential nominee.

In other much-discussed areas, we also don’t see much impact in mistaken suggestions that Obama's a Muslim, or in views of his wife. We regard his shortfall among working-class whites as somewhat overstressed. (As we've noted, his support from this group, as with whites overall, is about the same as usual for a Democratic presidential candidate, and it’s among upscale whites, rather than their working-class counterparts, that he may have more opportunity.) And on his vice presidential pick, well, of 17 individual items we tested last month for their importance to vote, the candidates' choice of running mates ranked – you guessed it – dead last.

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