May 12, 2008 — -- Pushing back against political punditry, more than six in 10 Democrats say there's no rush for Hillary Clinton to leave the presidential race – even as Barack Obama consolidates his support for the nomination and scores solidly in general-election tests.
Despite Obama's advantage in delegates and popular vote, 64 percent of Democrats in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll say Clinton should remain in the race. Even among Obama's supporters, 42 percent say so.
That's not a majority endorsement of Clinton's candidacy; Democrats by a 12-point margin would rather see Obama as the nominee, a lead that's held steadily in ABC News/Washington Post polls since early March. Instead it reflects a rejection of the notion that the drawn-out contest will hurt the party's prospects. Seventy-one percent think it'll either make no difference in November (56 percent) or actually help the party (15 percent).
Those views correspond with opinions on Clinton continuing her candidacy. And in a related result, 85 percent of Democrats (including Democratic-leaning independents) are confident the party would come together behind Obama as the nominee — though fewer, 45 percent, are "very" confident of it. That underscores the importance of the endgame for the party's prospects.
The second slot is one possibility: Clinton continues as the preferred choice as Obama's running mate, with 39 percent of Democrats saying they'd like him to pick her if he's the nominee. That peaks at 59 percent of African-Americans, 47 percent of Clinton supporters and 42 percent of women (vs. 34 percent of men).
There's also an indication that Clinton on the ticket would be a slight net plus in the general election: Among all Americans, more say having her run with Obama would make them more likely to vote Democratic (25 percent) than to vote Republican (18 percent). The rest (54 percent) say it wouldn't make a difference in their choice.
OBAMA and NOVEMBER – For his part, Obama, who surpassed Clinton on electability last month, now has knocked down another of her campaign's tent posts, for the first time slipping ahead of her as the "stronger leader." Her sole remaining advantage is on experience – a challenge in a contest in which Obama's theme of "change" has far outstripped experience as the attribute of top concern for Democrats.
In general election matchups, Obama leads McCain by 51-44 percent, similar to the last two ABC News/Washington Post polls. Standings in a Clinton vs. McCain race are 49-46 percent, again roughly similar to previous ABC News/Washington Post results.
About a quarter of Clinton supporters (26 percent) say they'd favor John McCain over Obama, and about as many Obama supporters (22 percent) say they'd take McCain over Clinton. However that's a measure taken in the heat of Democratic battle; again, how the race ends, and goes forward toward November, likely will count for much.
Indeed, relatively few mainstream Democrats (as opposed to independents) say they'd cross over (13 and 10 percent, respectively). And as many Republicans say they'd defect the other way – 10 percent for Clinton if she faced McCain; 15 percent for Obama vs. McCain.
FACTORS – Age continues to look like a major hurdle for McCain. Thirty-nine percent of Americans say they'd be uncomfortable with a president first taking office at age 72, far more than say they'd be uncomfortable with a woman (16 percent) or African-American (12 percent) as president.
The greatest risk of losing votes is among those who are "entirely" uncomfortable with the idea; that's 15 percent for a 72-year-old president, vs. 6 and 7 percent, respectively, for a black or female president. Slightly more seniors say they'd be entirely uncomfortable with a president that age, 20 percent, as do adults under 65, 14 percent.
While overall discomfort with an African-American president is much lower, it rises among less-educated whites – the same group that's been a challenge for Obama in the Democratic primaries. Among whites who haven't gone through college, 17 percent say they'd be at least somewhat uncomfortable with a black president; that compares with just 4 percent of white college graduates. Clinton may face a similar problem, however; less-educated whites also are more apt to be uncomfortable with a woman president (21 percent, vs. 7 percent of white college graduates).
This poll — like the last ABC News/Washington Post survey — finds no apparent damage to Obama in the controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Six in 10 Americans, and 73 percent of Democrats, say Obama has done "the right amount" to distance himself from Wright, rather than too little or too much.
In another measure, 26 percent say the more they hear about Obama the more they like him – more than say that about Clinton (15 percent) or McCain (14 percent). Obama's the only one among them to have gained as much as he's lost in the recent public glare.
McCAIN – In other signs of difficulties for McCain, Obama leads him in trust to handle the public's top issue, the economy, by 10 points; in trust to handle gasoline prices, by 20 points; and in trust to handle health care, by 24 points. On personal attributes Obama leads by wide margins as being better able to bring needed change, having the better temperament for the job, better empathy and a clearer vision for the future.
McCain also could suffer from the broader public discontent, generally and with George W. Bush in particular. Public disgruntlement neared a record high in this poll, with 82 percent of Americans saying the country's seriously off on the wrong track, up 10 points in the past year to a point from its record high in polls since 1973. And Bush slipped to his career low approval rating, 31 percent. (Separate story here.)
In a related result, the Democratic Party in general leads the Republicans in trust to handle the main issues the nation faces, by 53-32 percent – the biggest gap in favor of the Democrats in data since 1982. The question, again, is whether that fades in Bush's wake.
There's less consensus among Republicans about McCain's vice presidential choice than there is among Democrats on Obama's, if he's the nominee. Among Republicans, 12 percent prefer Mitt Romney to run with McCain; 7 percent are for Mike Huckabee, down from 17 percent in early March. Five percent favor Condoleezza Rice.
PUSH BACK – There are significant areas in which McCain can push back against Obama. After a five-year decline prompted by the unpopular president and the war in Iraq, there's been a recovery this year in Republican affiliation – possibly the precursor of post-Bush politics. The change is slight but bears watching: On average in ABC/Post polls this year 28 percent of Americans have identified themselves as Republicans, compared with a 24-year low of 25 percent last year. It peaked at 31 percent in 2003.
Also, in head-to-head matchups against Obama, McCain scores very well in experience, knowledge of world affairs and trust to handle terrorism; he's roughly even with Obama on leadership, ethics and trust to handle the war in Iraq, and he's closed the gap on immigration.
As well as immigration, McCain has gained ground on some personal attributes. Compared with early March he's advanced by 10 points in his rating as having higher personal and ethical standards and by 6 points as better understanding "the problems of people like you." He's lost 5, though, as the stronger leader.
Most fundamentally, the country's roughly divided on whether "strength and experience" or "new ideas and a new direction" are more important in the presidential election. Currently "strength and experience" voters favor McCain by 68-27 percent, while those more concerned with "new ideas and a new direction" favor Obama by an even broader margin, 79-18 percent. Just as these choices have driven the Democratic nominating contest, so they likely will in the general election.
METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone May 8-11, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,122 adults, including an oversample of African Americans (weighted to their correct share of the national population), for a total of 206 black respondents. The results from the full survey have a 3-point error margin; among the 620 leaned Democrats it's 4 points. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.