Poll Finds Dems Neck and Neck in Iowa

Obama, Clinton and Edwards draw equal support in ABC News/Post poll.

January 8, 2009, 1:01 AM

Aug. 3, 2007 — -- Iowa Democrats have found their perfect candidate -- in three people.

For experience, strength and electability -- in Iowa, as nationally -- it's Hillary Clinton.

For likability, empathy and a local focus, John Edwards pushes back strongly, far more so in Iowa than nationally.

And Barack Obama has his own appeal, notably among younger Iowa voters and those looking for a new direction in politics.

The mix makes for the tightest of contests -- a three-way tie among Obama, Edwards and Clinton among likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, with 27, 26 and 26 percent support respectively. Bill Richardson, long strides back at 11 percent, is the only other candidate with better than low single-digit support.

Beyond current preferences, the candidates' support profiles provide a road map as the campaigns try to capitalize on their competing advantages in the race ahead. Much relies on their efforts, especially in a very low-participation event like the Iowa caucuses, where turnout is paramount. (The 2004 Democratic caucuses drew about 120,000 attendees. There are twice as many seats at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.)

The poll also shows very broad satisfaction with the field, and a high level of engagement with the campaign. Seven in 10 likely Democratic caucus-goers have gotten one or more campaign telephone calls, four in 10 report attending a campaign event, and a third have received e-mails and visited candidate Web sites. One in six say they've made a campaign contribution.

Five months before the caucuses, just over four in 10 are following the race "very" closely -- nearly double the rate among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents nationally. And most like what they see: Not only are 89 percent satisfied with their choices in the Democratic race (the same as nationally, and well ahead of satisfaction among Republicans), 53 percent in Iowa are "very" satisfied, compared with 33 percent nationally.

There is, most certainly, room to move: Around four in 10 of each of the leading candidates' supporters are not "strongly" committed to their choice. At the same time, reallocating to second-choice preferences doesn't meaningfully change the three-way dead heat.

ABC News, together with WOI-TV in Des Moines, is sponsoring two candidate debates in Iowa -- one among the Republican candidates this Sunday morning (when a companion poll of Republican preferences will be released) and another among the Democrats Aug. 19.

Personal attributes matter -- especially in primaries and caucuses, because there tends to be less differentiation on the issues among same-party candidates. For Edwards, for instance, competitiveness in Iowa -- he's a distant third in national polls -- depends in part on old-fashioned time on the ground, plus a favorable personal image.

Edwards runs evenly with Clinton, and ahead of Obama, as having campaigned hardest in the state (and indeed his supporters are much more likely than his opponents to have received a campaign phone call). At the same time Edwards runs evenly with Obama -- and well ahead of Clinton -- as the "most likable" choice. Pulling from Clinton on hard work, and from Obama on personality, gives Edwards strength he lacks nationally.

There are good reasons Edwards is seen as having campaigned more in the state: He ran there in 2004, finishing a creditable second to John Kerry and leaving himself a prebuilt campaign organization. He was back in Iowa earlier than his top competitors this cycle. According to a Washington Post count, he's held 69 events in Iowa this year, compared with 60 by Obama and 41 by Clinton.

Edwards, by extension, has seen his message resonate better in Iowa. Among people who care more about "a new direction and new ideas" than about strong leadership, 31 percent support Edwards in Iowa, compared with 10 percent nationally.

Clinton's supported by just 15 percent of "new direction" voters in Iowa, versus 39 percent nationally. This remains a key group for Obama; he gets 37 percent from "new direction" voters in Iowa (about the same as nationally). By contrast, among those more focused on strength and experience, Obama gets far less support, just 14 percent.

Strength and experience are Clinton's attributes. She swamps her opponents, especially on experience; 50 percent pick her as having the best background for the job, versus just 7 percent for Obama and 15 percent for Edwards. But she lags both of them in honesty and trustworthiness as well as likability. And while Clinton nationally leads in her party by wide margins in understanding people's problems and in being "closest to you on the issues," Iowans divide much more closely on these among all three top candidates.

Clinton's supported by 31 percent of women in Iowa, compared with 21 percent of men, a gender gap not unlike the national figure; and, as nationally, she's stronger among lower-income voters. (Women also are 18 points more likely to be "very satisfied" with their choice of candidates, 61 percent to 43 percent.) But it's Obama who shows the most difference among population groups. He's got 38 percent support from likely caucus-goers under age 50 -- leading Clinton and Edwards in this group -- but just 15 percent support from senior citizens, a group in which Edwards leads.

Young people are notoriously hard to turn out, but Obama also leads among a more reliable voting group, highly educated adults. He's got 35 percent support from likely caucus-goers who have postgraduate degrees, compared with 19 percent among those who haven't gone beyond high school.

Obama also does better among Iowans who say it'll be their first caucus -- 34 percent of them support him -- than among those who say they've attended previously, 23 percent. The question again is to what extent newcomers do attend. (In the 2004 Iowa entrance poll, 55 percent said it was their first caucus, but that's partly because there hadn't been a highly contested Iowa caucus since 1988. In this poll, 31 percent say it'll be their first caucus.)

There are no significant differences among the top candidates in preferences among voters from union households, a sizable group in Iowa -- 22 percent of likely caucus-goers in this survey.

Looking at candidates' attributes underscores their liabilities as well as their strengths. In the most striking example, only a quarter of Obama's own supporters say he has the best experience in the field, as do just 45 percent of Edwards' supporters -- compared with 89 percent of Clinton's. Indeed, Obama's own supporters are almost twice as likely to say Clinton has the best experience as to say Obama does.

But just 42 percent of Clinton's own backers call her the most likable candidate, and just under half of her supporters (48 percent) call her the most honest and trustworthy. By contrast, 75 percent of Obama's supporters call him the most trustworthy, and 69 percent of Edwards' supporters say the same about their guy.

Clinton's pushbacks, again, are strength and experience. Three-quarters of her supporters call her the strongest leader in the race; among Edwards' supporters just 54 percent say he's the strongest leader (Obama, 59 percent). In a corollary, 73 percent of Clinton's supporters say she's the candidate best able to deal with the situation in Iraq, while barely over half of Obama's or Edwards' supporters see their candidate as best on Iraq. And Iraq is the issue likely caucus-goers want to hear about most.

On issues, respondents in this poll were asked what questions they'd ask the candidates in a debate if they had the chance. Most common topics were the Iraq War, mentioned by 32 percent, and health care, 21 percent, with all others in single digits. There aren't significant differences in voter preferences on the basis of these issues.

To the extent there are differences between attitudes in Iowa and the nation as a whole, part may lie in the difference of Iowa. Among them, according to federal data:

This survey was conducted by telephone calls to a random sample of Iowa homes with landline phone service. Adults identified as likely Democratic caucus-goers accounted for 12 percent of respondents; with an adult population of 2.2 million in Iowa, that projects to caucus turnout of 260,000.

A more restrictive likely voter definition, winnowing down to half that turnout, or about what it was in 2004, does not make a statistically significant difference in the estimate -- Edwards, 28 percent; Obama, 27 percent; and Clinton, 23 percent, all within sampling tolerances given the relatively small sample size. The more inclusive definition was used for more reliable subgroup analysis.

Other polls in Iowa have used registered voter lists rather than random-sample telephone calls; the approach can be more efficient in reaching people, but it also misses the substantial number of registered voters for whom there's no working phone number on the list. Some other Iowa polls also have a much higher number of "undecided" voters, a function of polling technique. The approach in ABC/Post polls is informed by the construct of the question -- whom people would support "if the caucus were being held today."

A fitting close to a study of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa is to hear their own voices. Following are some of the questions they said they'd ask the candidates in a debate -- questions that show the range of concerns to Iowans, and to all Americans, in the upcoming election.

"How would they get our boys back home quickly?"

"Tell me why my son has to go to Iraq to fight and why his buddies are all dead?"

"If you get us out of Iraq and al Qaeda takes over, what will you do?"

"How will you defend the United States if you are going to withdraw the troops?"

"Can you tell how you would fund the cost of national health care?"

"When are you going to run all the illegal aliens back over the border?"

"What has happened to Osama? Everything is going to Iraq and Iraq had nothing to do with the World Trade Center."

"What are your thoughts on the legalization of gay marriage?"

"When are you going to start to bring jobs back to our country?"

"How will you straighten out the budget deficit?"

"Are you going to clean up the corruption in Washington?"

"Why haven't we impeached Bush?"

"What are you going to do to help the struggling middle class and the poor?"

"I would ask about big companies taking over the farms. What would you do about that?"

"What is their plan to increase the graduation rate in inner-city schools?"

"What are you going to do about long-term Social Security?"

"What is the deal with global climate change?"

"If you're president, would you quit promoting ethanol?"

"How are you going to change the country?"

"How do we know when you're telling the truth?"

This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone July 26-31, 2007, among a random sample of 500 Iowan adults likely to vote in the 2008 Democratic presidential caucus. The results have a 4.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa. J. Ann Selzer, president of the public opinion research firm Selzer & Co. in Des Moines, consulted on project design.

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