POLL: Obama and Clinton Lead McCain; Change vs. Experience Is the Roadmap

Both Democratic candidates show an advantage in match-ups against McCain.


March 5, 2008 — -- A surge of Democratic allegiance is boosting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton alike in match-ups against John McCain, with change vs. experience as the roadmap for voter preferences in the 2008 general election.

Obama's advantage over McCain is the bigger one in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, a 12-point lead compared to Clinton's 6-point edge. McCain's endorsement by George W. Bush may not help: The president's back at his career low approval rating, matching Harry Truman in long-term unpopularity.

The results of this poll overall offer a roadmap to likely themes in the general election. Foremost are competing desires for the future: Americans divide evenly on "new ideas and new direction" vs. "strength and experience" in a candidate. Against McCain, Obama wins 80 percent of new direction voters; Clinton, 65 percent. Voters more focused on experience instead go to McCain, by 2-1 over Clinton and by 3-1 over Obama.

There's huge polarization in these choices: Seventy percent of Republicans call strength and experience more important; 60 percent of Democrats care more about a new direction. Independents – the quintessential swing voters – tilt to "new direction" by 47-38 percent. Those are the voters the candidates will try hardest to move their way.

Voter attention is high: Eighty-four percent of Americans are following the race very or somewhat closely, compared with 75 percent four years ago and 61 percent eight years ago. The increase has come especially among young adults – up 13 points compared with 2004 – and political moderates, up 15 points.

McCAIN – A steady hand in an uncertain world is the newly minted Republican nominee's clear pitch; tested against Democratic delegate-leader Obama, McCain holds huge leads on knowledge of world affairs and as better able to deal with terrorism. Obama offers a very different profile, with his biggest lead on the issue of health care and on attributes such as personality and temperament, empathy and a vision for the future.

But McCain is losing three in 10 conservatives to either Obama or Clinton, far more than he likely could stand to see slip away. Democratic presidential candidates since 1988 have won 15 to 20 percent of conservatives, not 30 percent.

That poses a potentially difficult straddle for McCain – reassuring conservatives on his right without alienating moderates and independents in the center. Currently many more Americans call Obama "about right" ideologically, 56 percent, than McCain, 41 percent.

BUSH – Today's endorsement by Bush may not do wonders for McCain: The president has a 32 percent job approval rating, matching his career low, outdone among postwar presidents only by Truman, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

While 65 percent of Republicans approve, that's a new low for Bush within his own party. His approval drops to 9 percent among Democrats and 32 percent among independents.

Bush's support has been as steady as it is low, between 32 and 36 percent in more than a dozen ABC/Post polls since December 2006. He hasn't seen majority approval in 38 months, matching Truman's record from 1949-1952.

The Korean War was much to blame for Truman's problem; the Iraq war for Bush's. Despite reduced violence in Iraq, 63 percent of Americans continue to say that given its costs vs. benefits the war was not worth fighting. And fewer than half, 43 percent, are persuaded the United States is making significant progress restoring civil order there.

These views, too, pose a challenge to McCain, as a supporter of the war in Iraq. While views on the war are highly polarized politically, among independents only a third say it was worth fighting, and just 40 percent see significant progress on civil order.

Currently McCain's supported by more than seven in 10 Americans who say the war's worth fighting – but among those who say it was not worth fighting, 66 percent prefer Clinton, and 70 percent prefer Obama.

PARTY – An important element for Obama and Clinton alike is a surge in Democratic partisanship: Forty percent of Americans now identify themselves as Democrats, the most since an ABC/Post poll in early 1997, and before that in August 1992, in advance of George H.W. Bush's defeat by Bill Clinton.

Economic discontent, dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and enthusiasm about the Democratic race all are factors; voter turnout has been up in most Democratic primaries this year, flat in most Republican contests. In all, 29 million adults have voted in Democratic caucuses and primaries, vs. 17 million on the Republican side.

The open question is whether Democrats can sustain this surge in allegiance beyond their attention-grabbing primaries, or whether their new adherents revert to a more neutral stance as independents. (It's independents who are down in this poll, with Republican self-identification roughly steady, at 28 percent.)

In a McCain-Obama match-up, each wins about 80 percent of his own party's adherents – better for Obama, given the current preponderance of Democrats. Defectors are about equal in share: 14 percent of Democrats for McCain, 16 percent of Republicans for Obama.

Clinton loses as many Democrats as Obama, but draws fewer Republicans, 9 percent; McCain wins 87 percent of Republicans against her, vs. his 80 percent vs. Obama. Independents – again, the key swing group – favor Obama by 10 points, Clinton by 7.

IDEOLOGY – While McCain, as noted, has trouble with conservatives, Obama boasts a vast 60-point lead among liberals, Clinton, 50 points. Among moderates Obama leads by 21 points, Clinton by a narrower 9 points.

Leads among moderates are crucial to the Democrats, since conservatives substantially outnumber liberals, by 30 percent to 19 percent in this poll.

Another measure on ideology underscores McCain's challenges. As noted, testing just the two delegate leaders, 56 percent say Obama's views on issues are "just about right" on the ideological spectrum, while many fewer, 41 percent, say the same about McCain. Democrats are more apt to approve of Obama ideologically (77 percent) than Republicans of McCain (61 percent).

Among swing independents, a majority rates Obama's views as about right, but only 36 percent say that about McCain. Instead 40 percent of independents say McCain's views are too conservative, more than the 29 percent who call Obama too liberal.

Moreover, a third of all conservatives, and 46 percent of "very" conservative adults, say McCain's too liberal. He needs to move right and center at once.

MORE GROUPS – Obama and Clinton alike lead McCain among women, by roughly equal margins (19 and 16 points, respectively). But a McCain-Obama race is closer among men (44-47 percent) than a McCain-Clinton race (51-44 percent).

Perhaps surprisingly, McCain does less well among white voters against Obama, 47-45 percent, than against Clinton, 52-42 percent; the main difference is white men. And while 94 percent of African-Americans favor Obama against McCain, Clinton's share of black voters slips to 85 percent.

Religious belief also informs vote choices. Evangelical white Protestants, a core Republican group, favor McCain over Obama by 70-23 percent, and over Clinton by 68-29 percent. Americans who profess no religion, by contrast, back Obama by about an equal margin, 65-20 percent, and Clinton by 61-31.

While Obama and Clinton, as noted, lead among independents, McCain leads among another traditional swing voter group, white Catholics, by 53-40 percent vs. Obama and by 58-39 percent vs. Clinton. Since 1988 the candidate who's won white Catholics also has won the popular vote, except in 2000.

SECURITY and RACE – Another element, albeit not related to vote preference, is security. Fifty-nine percent of Americans express concern that someone might try to harm Obama, who'd be the first African-American candidate for president, if he's nominated. That's far more than the number who worry about McCain's security, 27 percent.

Concern about Obama crosses demographic lines, but peaks among blacks, at 83 percent (vs. 56 percent of whites), and among Democrats overall, at 68 percent (vs. 53 percent of Republicans and independents). Again, though, it's far higher in all groups than for McCain.

At the same time, Obama's race still rates as a slight net positive for him, as does Clinton's sex for her, compared with the net negative of McCain's age. Americans by a 23-point margin are less enthusiastic about McCain given the fact that he'd be the oldest first-term president; by an 8-point margin, they're more enthusiastic about Obama given that he'd be the first African-American president. Clinton's net positive on being the first woman president is about the same, 9 points.

Obama's race is a net positive for Democrats by 20 points and independents by a slight 5 points, negative for Republicans by 5. Clinton's sex is a net positive for Democrats and independents, negative for Republicans. McCain's age, by contrast, is a net negative across party lines, although to varying degrees.

ISSUES and ATTRIBUTES – This poll did additional testing of McCain and Obama, the frontrunners, on issues and personal attributes. McCain leads in trust to handle just two of six issues tested, vs. four for Obama. But that includes a large lead, 25 points, in trust to handle what can be a decisive issue in times of insecurity – terrorism.

Indeed a substantial number of Democrats, 41 percent, rate McCain as better qualified on terrorism, as do 52 percent of independents and 86 percent of Republicans.

McCain has a scant 5-point edge on Iraq; Obama, a 26-point lead on health care, and smaller but significant advantages on the economy – the top issue this year – immigration and ethics in government.

The differences on attributes are sharper still. McCain leads Obama by 51 points, 70-19 percent, on experience; by 40 points in knowledge of world affairs; and by a closer 11 points on strong leadership. Notably, he prevails on experience even among liberals (55 percent say he beats Obama on this score) and by a plurality of Democrats, 48 percent.

Obama counters those three with advantages in five other areas, including more than 20-point leads on personality and temperament, empathy, bringing needed change and a vision for the future. He's got a smaller 12-point lead on personal and ethical standards.

Only 47 percent of conservatives, and 52 percent of Republicans, pick McCain as better suited in terms of his personality and temperament; McCain also gets lukewarm support from conservatives, 51 percent, as better to "bring needed change."

HURDLE – Another way of examining these is in basic acceptability – not which candidate's rated better, but who clears the hurdle. Here both face challenges. Fewer than half of Americans, 49 percent, say Obama has the kind of experience it takes to serve effectively as president – a clear problem for him. But fewer still, 41 percent, say McCain would do enough to bring needed change to Washington, a real shortcoming of his own.

Doubt runs highest, for both, among seniors – just 34 percent think McCain will bring needed change, and only 32 percent say Obama's experienced enough.

Six in 10 Republicans think McCain would bring change, but far fewer independents (39 percent) and Democrats (28 percent) agree. Similarly, half of conservatives say he'd bring needed change, but only 41 percent of moderates and a third of liberals agree.

Adults under 30 are twice as apt as seniors to say Obama has enough experience. By 2-1 Democrats say he's got the experience, while by roughly the same margin Republicans say not. Independents split, 46-48 percent.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Feb. 28-March 2, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,126 adults, including an oversample of African-Americans for a total of 215 black respondents (weighted back to their correct share of the national population). The results have a 3-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events