Close Race: McCain Stays in Range Amid Challenges for Obama

Bush Disapproval at New High, Record Number Say Country is on 'Wrong Track'


June 17, 2008—

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll underscores the conundrum of the 2008 presidential election: If everything is so good for Barack Obama, why isn't everything so good for Barack Obama?

Disapproval of George W. Bush has reached a record high for any president in modern polls, a record number of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, Democrats hold a significant advantage in partisan affiliation and Obama leads John McCain on a range of issues and personal attributes, as well as in sheer enthusiasm.

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Yet Obama has less of a head-to-head advantage against McCain than these views would imply.

Among all Americans, Obama leads by a fairly narrow 6 points; among those most likely to vote -- an estimate that it's admittedly early to make -- the two are locked in a dead heat.

In generic preference in local congressional elections, by contrast, the Democrats lead the Republicans by 15 points, a wide 52-37 percent, among all adults.

Obama's advantage vs. McCain is about the same as in an ABC/Post poll last month -- no bounce from Obama's victory in the long-fought Democratic nomination campaign.

No Post-Clinton Bounce for Obama

One of the challenges for Obama in terms of likely voters is the fact that his support relies heavily on young adults, whose turnout on Election Day is far less reliable than their elders'.

He leads McCain by more than a 2-1 margin among Americans under 30; that shifts to a tie among middle-aged adults, and a McCain advantage among seniors.

Obama, more broadly, also faces significant unease with his resume, with just half of Americans, 50 percent, saying he's experienced enough to serve as president. Forty-six percent think that's not so, a large number to lose on the basic question of qualifications.

Also, in the two most reliable swing voter groups in presidential elections, Obama and McCain run evenly among independents, and McCain leads by 14 points among white Catholics. (In a shift, McCain's doing better this month than last among women, particularly married white women, while Obama's doing better among men.)

Obama has work to do in his base, as well: Among Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton for president, about one in four, 24 percent, prefer McCain over Obama, and 13 percent pick someone else or say they wouldn't vote. Those are essentially unchanged from an ABC/Post poll last month, before Clinton suspended her campaign and offered Obama a fulsome endorsement.

Obama is not disproportionately weaker among Clinton supporters who comprised her core groups, such as women, seniors and working-class whites. Instead he's losing those who value strength and experience over change, who doubt Obama's qualifications and who see him as a risky choice – mirroring his challenges among all adults more broadly.

Given his shortfall among Clinton supporters, Obama overall loses slightly more Democrats to McCain -- 14 percent -- than the number of Republicans defecting from McCain to Obama, 9 percent. As noted, independents split evenly.

With Election Day nearly five months away, there's time yet for more Clinton supporters to line up behind their party's presumptive nominee. His fortunes may rely on it.

Fundamentals Favor Obama

For all these challenges, Obama retains strong fundamentals on issues and attributes, with highly motivated support and broad general appeal.

He leads McCain in trust to handle seven of 11 issues tested in this survey, generally by wide margins; McCain has an edge in just two, and by a large margin only on terrorism.

Obama, similarly, leads McCain by double-digit margins on four of five personal attributes, and he's moved into a tie with McCain on the fifth, stronger leadership, a quality on which McCain led by 11 points in March.

In another sharp difference, Americans are far more apt to think Obama would adequately represent the interests of middle-class Americans (66 percent) than to think McCain would do so (44 percent). Nearly half say McCain would do "too little" for the middle class; just 22 percent say that about Obama.

Fifty-five percent of adults, moreover, call themselves "enthusiastic" about Obama's candidacy, 28 percent "very" enthusiastic – 13 and 19 points more than say so about McCain. Strikingly, among Obama's own supporters, 54 percent are very enthusiastic about him; among McCain's, just 17 percent say the same about their candidate.

Further, 63 percent of Americans now view Obama favorably vs. just 33 percent unfavorably, matching his best to date on this most basic measure of personal popularity. At the same time, nearly as many, 56 percent view McCain favorably, 39 percent unfavorably. That's notably good for McCain, given that just 38 percent believe he'd lead the country in a direction different from that of the highly unpopular President Bush.

Bush Disapproval Hits New Low

Obama should be aided by the Republican Party's troubles.

Given economic discontent (and $4 gas) atop the unpopular Iraq war, Bush's job approval rating has sunk to a new low in ABC/Post polls, 29 percent; 68 percent now disapprove, the highest in any presidential approval poll dating to Gallup's first in 1938 (surpassing Harry Truman's 67 percent disapproval and Richard Nixon's 66).

Fifty-four percent "strongly" disapprove, a new high, dwarfing the 10 percent who strongly approve. Among other groups, Bush is at record lows in his own party and among conservatives.

Separately, and for the same reasons, a remarkable 84 percent say the country is seriously off on the wrong track, a record high in polls since the early 1970s. The previous high was 83 percent in June 1992, the summer before Bush's father lost re-election amid broad economic discontent. It was 82 percent last month.

Race & Age

Race continues to look like less of a problem for Obama than age is for McCain. White voters prefer McCain by a 12-point margin, 51-39 percent, but that's about the average for Democratic presidential candidates.

John Kerry lost whites by 17 points, Al Gore by 12, Mike Dukakis and Walter Mondale by broader margins. All the same, Democrats who've won the White House have done better among whites.

Twenty-three percent of Americans call the race of the candidate an important factor in their vote; this view, however, doesn't unequally impact vote preference. For example, just shy of four in 10 whites support Obama regardless of whether they call race important or unimportant in their preference.

Far more, 40 percent, call the age of the candidate important, and those who do so are nearly 20 points more apt to support Obama than are those who say age isn't an issue. Solely among seniors, McCain's support is 25 points lower among those who call age important than among those who say otherwise.

In another result, fairly few Americans, 17 percent, say they think that if elected Obama would do too much in representing the interests of African-Americans, and fewer, 9 percent called this a "big concern." By contrast, far more, 40 percent think McCain would do too much in representing the interests of large business corporations, a big concern to 31 percent.

This poll includes a closer look at racial attitudes in the presidential contest that'll be reported later this week.

Change vs. Experience

Among additional factors, there's progress for Obama in his theme of "change," with Americans by 50-43 percent citing "new ideas and a new direction" above "experience and strong leadership" as important in their choice for president; that's a new high for "new direction," up 7 points in the past month.

Obama wins eight in 10 of those new direction voters; McCain, however, has markedly improved among voters more focused on experience. He now wins support from 81 percent in this group, up from 68 percent last month and similar levels in March and April.

There are similar countervailing trends on the subject of ideology. More Americans say Obama is "just about right" on the liberal-to-conservative ideological scale, 52 percent, than say McCain is about right, 40 percent; that's because about two in 10 see McCain as too liberal on top of the third who call him too conservative.

At the same time, the country's basic ideological posture helps McCain: Thirty-three percent of Americans think of themselves as conservatives, more than half again as many as the 21 percent who are liberals. Obama leads broadly among liberals and moderates alike, but conservatives push McCain back into the match.

Accompanying those ideological divisions, Americans narrowly, by 50-45 percent, say they favor smaller government with fewer services over larger government with more services – down from the bigger "small government" advantages of years past, but another help to McCain. Small-government Americans favor him by a broad 58-31 percent; those who prefer larger government are for Obama by 65-28 percent.

Among other groups, Obama's winning 90 percent support from blacks (customary for a Democrat) and seven in 10 Hispanics. Among whites, socioeconomic status bears watching; McCain is doing better among working-class whites, but Obama's mitigated that change by improving among high-income whites, similar to the Obama-Clinton trends in the Democratic primaries.

The Clinton Factor

On Clinton, there's been an increase, to 46 percent, in the number of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who'd like Obama to pick her for vice president. That's especially so among those who supported Clinton for the nomination; 67 percent would like her for V.P., compared with 32 percent of Obama's backers in the primary campaign.

Yet having Clinton on the ticket currently looks unlikely to make much difference; as many Americans say they'd be less likely to vote Democratic with Clinton on the ticket as more likely. That's a slight shift from May, when it was a slight (7-point) positive for the Democrats.

More broadly, while it didn't do much for Obama, leaving the race looks to have worked well for Clinton's popularity; her favorability rating is up by 10 points from April.

The Issues

As noted, the closeness of the Obama-McCain standings contrast preferences on issues and attributes. Americans overall say they trust Obama over McCain by 2-1 or more on issues of special concern to women and environmental issues; by 15 to 20 points on health care, gas prices, the economy and energy policy; and by 8 points on taxes.

McCain for his part, leads by 14 points in trust to handle terrorism and holds a slim 6-point edge on international affairs. They're about even on the Iraq war and trust to handle appointments to the Supreme Court.

Obama has advantages on other issues, as well.

Seventy-seven percent say a president should meet with leaders of hostile foreign nations, rejecting the argument that this could reward their behavior and make the United States look weak.

The public by 2-1 gives a higher priority to providing health care coverage for all Americans than to holding down taxes.

Again by 2-1 Americans favor providing tax breaks for companies to develop alternative energy sources, rather than leaving this to the marketplace. And 63 percent continue to say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, with just 38 percent saying the United States is winning there. Each comes closer to Obama's position.

All these, again, return to an examination of why, given his advantages, Obama's not doing better against McCain – a question on which groups such as swing voters, Clinton supporters, ideological preferences, young voters and concerns about Obama's experience all play a role.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone June 12-15, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,125 adults, including an oversample of African Americans (weighted to their correct share of the national population), for a total of 201 black respondents. The results from the full survey have a 3-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.

Click here for a PDF with charts and full questionnaire.