April 16, 2008 -- Barack Obama has knocked down one of the three tent poles of Hillary Clinton's campaign for president, surging ahead of her as the candidate Democrats see as most likely to win in November. He's challenging her on leadership as well, leaving only experience as a clear Clinton advantage in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.
On the eve of their debate before the Pennsylvania primary next week, Democrats by a 2-1 margin, 62-31 percent, now see Obama as better able to win in November -- a dramatic turn from February, when Clinton held a scant 5-point edge on this measure, and more so from last fall, when she crushed her opponents on electability.
The poll finds other pronounced problems for Clinton. Among all Americans, 58 percent now say she's not honest and not trustworthy, 16 points higher than in a precampaign poll two years ago. Obama beats her head-to-head on this attribute by a 23-point margin.
The number of Americans who see Clinton unfavorably overall has risen to a record high in ABC/Post polling, 54 percent -- up 14 points since January. Obama's unfavorable score has reached a new high as well, up 9 points, but to a lower 39 percent.
A favorability rating is the most basic measure of any public figure's popularity; it's trouble when unfavorable views outscore favorable ones. That's now the case for Clinton, alone among the current candidates.
There are other strong signs of the toll of the long Democratic campaign. The number of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who describe the tone of the contest as "mostly negative" has risen by 14 points since February, from 27 percent then to 41 percent now. Those who say so mainly blame Clinton over Obama, by nearly a 4-1 margin, 52 percent to 14 percent. (An additional 25 percent blame both equally.)
In a similar result, half of Democrats say their candidates are "arguing about things that really aren't that important" rather than discussing real issues.
The candidates are at or near dead heats in trust to handle a range of issues, including the economy, the war in Iraq, international trade and terrorism. Clinton's lack of a significant advantage on these, despite her wide edge on experience, is another challenge.
Obama, meanwhile, has largely succeeded in moving past the controversial comments made by the former minister of his church, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; 59 percent of all adults, and 72 percent of leaned Democrats, approve of the way Obama has distanced himself from Wright. (Nearly half of Democrats, however, are concerned the Republicans will use the Wright imbroglio effectively against Obama if he is nominated.)
Nor does the controversy over Obama's remark calling some voters "bitter" seem to have hurt; his favorability rating, though down from January, lost no ground across the nights this poll was done (Thursday through Sunday) as the issue gained volume.
Equally problematic for Clinton in all this is the bottom line: Democrats by 51-41 percent say they'd like to see Obama win the nomination, his biggest advantage to date.
FIGHT ON – Yet most Democrats are also willing to see Clinton fight on; 55 percent say she should stay in the race even if she loses Pennsylvania. One reason is that about as many, 53 percent, say it's more important to them that their candidate wins, even if that means a longer race.
Another factor is that most Democrats reject the notion that the long campaign will damage their chances in November. While 32 percent share this view, more, 67 percent, believe that ultimately the length of the race either won't make much difference in the general election (50 percent) or will end up helping the Democrats' cause (17 percent).
But there is an indication that the increasingly contentious race is taking a toll: In this poll, 35 percent of Americans identify themselves as Democrats, down from 40 percent last month and the lowest percentage since the primary season began.
DELEGATES – There's a brighter result for Clinton in preferences on how Democratic "superdelegates" should choose a candidate. Only 13 percent of Democrats say superdelegates should support whoever's won the most regular delegates in primaries and caucuses -- a count in which Obama's ahead, and seemingly likely to stay so.
Instead a plurality, 46 percent, say superdelegates should support the candidate who's won the most popular votes, a tally in which Clinton still has hopes. And 37 percent say superdelegates should go with their own sense of which candidate they think is best.
(Democrats who favor relying on the popular vote broadly prefer that it be based on the national vote, not the vote within each superdelegate's home state. Either way, whether to count uncontested Florida and Michigan remains a vexing point.)
DEM DAMAGE? – Significant numbers of Democrats currently say they'd defect to Republican John McCain if their candidate loses the nomination; in this poll, 21 percent of Obama's supporters, and 23 percent of Clinton's say they'd jump to McCain. But that's a result worthy of caution; it's hardly an opportune time -- in the midst of the Democrats' continuing food fight, with their dander up -- to put much stock in the result.
Still, it's clear that the Democrats' eventual nominee will have some persuading to do within the party as well as without. A potentially greater threat than crossover voting is that disaffected Democrats might simply sit out the general election.
Another gauge underscores the point: Just 61 percent of Obama supporters say they'd definitely or probably vote for Clinton if she wins the nomination; 38 percent say they definitely or probably would not. It's very similar among Clinton supporters: Sixty-one percent say they'd be inclined to vote for Obama, 35 percent definitely or probably not.
Among core Democrats -- excluding Democratic-leaning independents -- about a third on each side say they're disinclined to kiss and make up.
That would be a highly unusual -- perhaps unprecedented -- level of party defections. From 1992-2004 just 10 or 11 percent of Democrats have voted Republican. In 1988 Mike Dukakis yielded 17 percent of Democrats; in 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan attracted a quarter of Democrats.
Any significant defections of disenchanted Democrats to McCain would be a concern to the Democratic nominee. It's a balance worth watching -- but one that will be more meaningfully measured after the Democrats pick their candidate and lick their wounds.
There's also the possibility of GOP crossover: Fourteen percent of Republicans say they'd vote for Obama if he's the nominee; fewer, 7 percent, say they'd cross over for Clinton.
As noted, there are other concerns for Democrats -- the level of Democratic partisanship, and also whether Republican allegiance will recover. On average across 2007 just 25 percent of Americans identified themselves as Republicans, the lowest percentage since 1984. So far this year it's ticked up to 28 percent on average; in this poll, 29 percent.
NOVEMBER – As things stand, this poll suggests a close general election contest. Obama has a scant 5-point advantage over McCain, 49-44 percent, compared with a 52-40 percent race last month. McCain and Clinton stand at 48-45 percent; it was a Clinton advantage, 50-44 percent, last month.
One factor is the shift in partisan affiliation. Another, in the McCain-Clinton matchup, is independents, one of the key swing voter groups. Last month, Clinton had a 7-point edge among independents; now it's a 10-point McCain advantage. (Obama continues to lead McCain among independents, by 8 points.)
All the candidates have vulnerabilities. McCain's major speech on the economy this week was likely aimed at his comparative weakness in this area; among voters who say the economy is their top concern he trails Obama (by 53-39 percent) and Clinton (by 51-42 percent) alike. And the economy is the top issue by far, cited by 41 percent; the war in Iraq follows, cited by 18 percent as their chief concern.
In another measure, Americans by 55-34 percent say a Democratic president would do a better job than a Republican handling the economy; and by 52-35 percent also believe a Democrat would do a better job dealing with the situation in Iraq.
McCain's age -- he'd be the first president to take office at 72 -- is also a continued negative; 26 percent say it makes them "less enthusiastic" about supporting his candidacy, including 13 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of independents. That is, however, down slightly from its high, 31 percent in January.
Nearly half of Americans, 48 percent, also think McCain's temperament would hurt his ability to serve effectively as president. But 51 percent say Obama's level of experience would hurt him, and 49 percent say Clinton would be damaged by her political style. Each is a broad enough concern for the candidates to take notice.
FAVORABILITY – Clinton and Obama are not alone in their higher unfavorability ratings. McCain's unfavorable score, similarly, has gained 10 points since January, to 40 percent; and Bill Clinton's has advanced about as much, to 51 percent, its worst since he left office.
Both Clintons stand out in the level of antipathy they attract. Thirty-nine percent of Americans have a "strongly" unfavorable opinion of Hillary Clinton (up 10 points since January); fewer, 22 percent, have a "strongly" favorable view (down 10 points). Thirty-four percent are strongly negative on Bill Clinton.
ATTRIBUTES – Hillary Clinton, naturally, does much better on favorability in her own party (29 percent unfavorable among leaned Democrats versus Obama's 21 percent). But she's got trouble versus Obama on several specific personal attributes, which matter especially in primaries, with candidates relatively close on the issues.
Obama now leads Clinton, as noted, by 62-31 percent as having the better chance of winning in November; he also owns the "change" mantra, leading by 56-35 percent as the one who'd "do more to bring needed change to Washington." And he leads by 53-30 percent as more honesty and trustworthy; even among women, a more pro-Clinton group, Obama leads on trustworthiness by a 16-point margin (it's 35 points among men).
It's a close Obama +5 on the candidate who "better understands the problems of people like you," with men and women dividing, and an equally close Clinton +5 on being the stronger leader -- an attribute on which Clinton was +24 in February, and +41 back in September against Obama and John Edwards combined.
Clinton, then, is down to a broad advantage on only one attribute tested in this poll -- having the better experience, on which she leads Obama by 67-24 percent. The question is whether it's enough.
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, 4 points for the 643 leaned Democrats. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.