July 15, 2008 -- Holes in Barack Obama's foreign affairs resume are spurring doubt about his readiness for a crisis -- raising the stakes on his upcoming trip overseas and posing potential opportunity for his otherwise weaker Republican opponent, John McCain.
Obama continues to hold most of the advantages in the presidential race, in enthusiasm, levels of partisanship, personal qualities and trust on top domestic issues, notably No. 1, the economy; and he's improved in the past month among swing voter groups.
But Obama's experience gap vs. McCain shows up especially in global politics.
Americans by a wide margin, 63-26 percent, pick McCain as more knowledgeable on world affairs, rate him much more highly in terms of readiness for the world stage and military leadership alike, and put him ahead of Obama by 50-41 percent in trust to handle "an unexpected major crisis."
Obama remains strong on the home front. He leads McCain by 19 points in trust to handle the economy, 14 points on the deficit and 10 points on immigration, the latter a turnaround from a McCain lead in the spring.
By contrast, the two run about evenly in trust to deal with international affairs overall, as well as Iraq, Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And McCain has a scant 6-point edge in trust to handle terrorism, though Obama's moved up on this measure since spring.
Obama scores on one international issue: Americans by 2-1 think he's better able to restore America's image abroad, overwhelmingly seen as having been damaged by George W. Bush. And McCain's competitiveness on foreign affairs is weakened by its relatively low importance overall: Just 28 percent call it "extremely important" in their vote, compared with 50 percent who say that about the economy. Iraq and terrorism, however, rate higher, at 42 and 37 percent "extremely important," respectively.
Edge and Risks to Obama
There are other dynamics well worth watching. Some pose risks for Obama: With the closely fought primaries over, attention to the race has subsided; now as last month, no more Americans are following the election closely than were at this point in 2004 (it's still a lot, 73 percent, but down from 84 percent in the spring).
Intention to vote also has declined, especially among young adults -- Obama's best age group -- as well as among Democrats overall and former Hillary Clinton supporters in particular.
In March, 66 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they'd "definitely vote" in November; now it's 46 percent. (Turnout among young voters is not reliable.) Certain resolve to vote has gone from 82 percent to 66 percent among Democrats and from 77 percent to 58 percent among former Clinton supporters. And a third of onetime Clinton backers still shy from Obama, saying they'd vote for McCain or not at all.
There's another ding on Obama: Change has been his theme, and he leads mightily among voters looking mainly for "a new direction and new ideas" -- but at the same time voters only divide evenly, 47-48 percent, on whether Obama's done enough to explain what "change" means. Among older Americans, who are more skeptical of change as a theme, 56 percent say he hasn't explained it well enough.
McCain, though, has troubles of his own: His profile includes a substantial "negative" vote, which can be harder to turn out at the polls -- 30 percent of his supporters are more anti-Obama than pro-McCain. Obama's support, by contrast, is just 18 percent negative. (John Kerry's support was especially negative -- at its peak, 61 percent anti-Bush rather than pro-Kerry.) And Americans only divide evenly on whether McCain shares their values; by contrast, they say by 56-39 percent that Obama does.
McCain's also hurt by an unusual Democratic edge in partisan allegiance: In this poll 37 percent of Americans identify themselves as Democrats vs. 24 percent Republicans, an effect of George W. Bush's broad unpopularity. (Partisanship is 37-27 percent among registered voters, but tightens to 33-32 percent among likely voters.)
Bush, indeed, is a major millstone for McCain. Given the unpopular war and the struggling economy, Bush's job approval rating has reached a new low for the third month straight -- at 28 percent approval, he now matches Jimmy Carter's low, surpassed only by Richard Nixon and Harry Truman.
Bush hasn't seen majority approval in 42 months, a record. And Bush disapprovers favor Obama by a whopping 68-23 percent. (Congress, at 23 percent approval, is rated even worse than Bush; it's 35 percent approval specifically for the Democrats in Congress, 25 percent for the Republicans.)
Another factor is changeability. Nearly three in 10 Americans say they could change their minds (or have no current preference).
That seems to be evidenced by night-to-night variability in preferences; in this four-night poll, Obama held a much larger lead Sunday compared with Thursday through Saturday results. This nightly variability could be one reason some recent polls have differed; e.g., Newsweek had a 15-point Obama lead in a two-day poll in mid-June, when other contemporaneous polls did not; and Newsweek had that tighten to 3 points this past weekend, again in a two-day poll.
To Flip or Flop
One apparently neutral factor is the question of flip-flopping, as each candidate tries both to appeal to the center as well as to keep his base invigorated.
The bottom line is that inflexibility -- the flipside of flip-flopping -- is not in demand: Americans by a very lopsided 78-18 percent say it's more important for a candidate to "adjust his positions to changing circumstances" than to "hold positions without changing them."
McCain and Obama alike, moreover, are seen equally as having flipped-flopped on the issues (by 47 and 49 percent, respectively). And they run evenly, 43-45 percent, in ratings on who's "more consistent in his positions." On a related attribute, Obama leads McCain by 7 points as more honest and trustworthy, with sharp partisan divisions in those views.
Obama Leads McCain by Eight
All told, Obama leads McCain among registered voters by 8 points in this ABC/Post poll, 50-42 percent.
Turnout makes a difference: It's 51-39 percent among all adults overall, but narrows to a close 49-46 percent match among likely voters. As noted, Republicans are among those more likely to vote; young adults, less so.
These standings are perhaps slightly better for Obama than last month (albeit within the polls' error margins). But he has improved in key swing voter groups. Within the registered voter population, Obama has a 49-40 percent lead among independents, a 52-43 percent lead among married women and runs competitively, 46-43 percent, among white Catholics.
While "swing voters" is an overused term, it does apply to these groups -- their allegiance shifts from election to election and they're big enough to tilt the balance.
In exit polls, white Catholics have gone with the winner in eight of the last eight elections, all by significant margins. Independents have gone with the winner in six of the last eight elections (one of them by just 2 points, the others all significant.) And married women have gone with the winner in four of the last four elections (although two of them were by just 1 point, not a statistically significant margin).
Gender Gap, Class Divisions
The gender gap is back in force in this survey; the race is a dead heat, 45-45 percent, among men who are registered to vote, vs. a 54-39 percent Obama lead among women (who are more apt to be Democrats). Registered whites favor McCain by 50-42 percent; 94 percent of blacks favor Obama. (Democratic presidential candidates customarily win nine in 10 blacks.)
Voters under 30 favor Obama by a huge 66-30 percent; his challenge, again, is turning them out. At the other end of the age spectrum, seniors (who do turn out reliably) divide by 45-40 percent, McCain-Obama.
Working-class whites (defined here as whites who lack a college degree) favor McCain by 50-41 percent -- as good for Obama as either Kerry or Al Gore's support in this group (they broke 61-38 percent for Bush in 2004, 57-40 percent in 2000).
A four-way trial heat, including independent Ralph Nader and Libertarian Bob Barr, doesn't make big changes: a 49-39 percent Obama-McCain race, with 5 percent for Nader and 2 percent for Barr, again among registered voters. (That assumes Nader and Barr are on the ballots in all 50 states, which is not a done deal.)
A Time for Change
As noted, 28 percent of adults say they could change their minds (or have no current preference), about the usual level of movable voters at this stage. Their numbers peak in the swing groups: Thirty-nine percent of white Catholics are movable, as are 35 percent of independents and 33 percent of married women.
But other groups also are among the most moveable: Forty-two percent of moderate or liberal Republicans, 36 percent of Democrats who supported Clinton in the primaries, 35 percent of moderates overall, 34 percent of whites, 31 percent of single men and 31 percent of under-30s.
Seniors are much less movable -- 22 percent. Indeed a list of the least movables is instructive as well; beyond seniors they include strong partisans. It's the movables, of course, where the campaigns will spend most of their persuasive powers. Among the stalwarts, the question is more one of turnout.
By the Issues
Rather than asking Americans their single top issue, as previous ABC/Post polls have done, respondents in this survey rated the importance of 17 issues individually. The economy and the related issue of gas prices and energy policy topped the list, called "extremely important" by 50 and 48 percent, respectively.
One useful aspect of this approach is to see which issues rate low in importance; they include some hotly debated and closely covered ones.
Gun control and "social issues such as abortion and gay civil unions" are toward the bottom, outranked by just one other issue: The candidates' choice of vice-presidential running mates, rated as "extremely important" by just 15 percent.
Obama has consistent leads among registered voters who rate each of these as extremely important, with two exceptions: They're even among those who rate social issues as extremely important, and among those who rate terrorism that important, McCain leads by 51-43 percent.
Experience & Optimism
Experience, as noted, is a shortcoming for Obama; in one way of measuring it, somewhat more people see his level of experience as hurting his ability to serve effectively (49 percent) than as helping it (40 percent). Similarly more see McCain's age as hurting (43 percent) than as helping (33 percent).
Indeed Americans have compunctions overall about both candidates, somewhat more for McCain. Seventy-four percent say some things about McCain worry them; 66 percent say that about Obama. When this question was asked in 2000, concern about McCain (and about Bush) was lower than it is now; worry about Obama was about the same for Gore.
One last result cuts to one of the intangibles of politics, optimism.
It can be an appealing feature in a candidate, and at this time in 2004 Bush was seen as an optimist by more people than Kerry (though later in the summer they evened up). In this poll the tables are turned: Many more see Obama as an optimist, 79 percent, as say that about McCain, just 54 percent.
It's reflected in vote choices: Among registered voters who see McCain as a pessimist, 72 percent favor Obama; among those who see Obama as a pessimist, 76 percent favor McCain. That suggests that, even as they duke it out on policy and personal attributes in the campaign fight ahead, both these candidates will want to keep smiling.
METHODOLOGY: This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone July 10-13, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,119 adults, including an oversample of African Americans (weighted to their correct share of the national population), for a total of 209 black respondents. The results from the full survey have a 3-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.