Three Top Democrats Share Lead In Iowa Poll

By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 3, 2007

Less than six months before Iowa voters open the 2008 presidential nomination battles, the Democratic contest in the Hawkeye State is a deadlock, with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards in a virtual tie for first place, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

While Clinton has a clear and consistent lead over Obama in national polls, with Edwards generally running a distant third, the contours of the campaign in Iowa appear far different. Edwards's strong base of support, built on the foundations of his second-place finish in the state's precinct caucuses in 2004, has turned Iowa into the most competitive early state for the Democratic field.

As is the case nationally, Clinton gains from being seen as the strongest leader and the most electable contender. But in a state where retail politics can be crucial, she lags far behind her main rivals in voters' rankings of the most likable candidate.

The survey of likely caucus participants captures attitudes among a small fraction of Iowa's population; historically, relatively few eligible voters turn out for caucuses. But these activists could have significant influence in shaping the Democratic race as it moves from the cornfields of the Midwest to the hills of New Hampshire and beyond to the mega-primary on Feb. 5.

Americans elsewhere may not be paying attention to the presidential race on a day-to-day basis, but nine in 10 likely Democratic caucus attendees said they are closely following the movements and statements of the candidates. Seven in 10 said they have been contacted by at least one of the presidential campaigns this year, and four in 10 said they have attended at least one campaign event.

In the poll, 27 percent said they would vote for Obama, 26 percent for Clinton and 26 percent for Edwards. The only other Democrat to register in double digits was Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, at 11 percent. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) trailed at 2 percent, and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) at 1 percent.

Former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska) did not get any support among the 500 likely voters in the Post-ABC News survey, conducted by telephone between July 26 and July 31. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Iowa Democrats were also asked to name a second choice. When those results were combined with first choices, the race remained equally tight, with each of the three leading candidates being the first or second choice of about half of those surveyed.

History suggests that these voters are quite willing to change their mind as caucus day approaches and the campaign intensifies with television advertising and more direct engagement among the candidates. In the 2004 Iowa caucus day poll by the National Election Pool, 42 percent of caucus-goers said they made up their mind in the last week of the campaign. Just 30 percent made their final decision more than a month before caucus day.

Iowa is crucial to Edwards's presidential aspirations. More than Clinton or Obama, the former senator from North Carolina needs a victory in the caucuses to give his candidacy a boost heading to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. At this point, Clinton and Obama are far better positioned than Edwards in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, and he remains at a distinct disadvantage financially.

Clinton's rivals believe it is essential to defeat the senator from New York in Iowa if they hope to deny her the nomination. Her campaign worries more about Iowa than any of the other early states, and in the past two months it has made structural changes designed to overcome a slow start.

And many appear to have noticed. Asked which candidate has campaigned the hardest in Iowa, voters were as likely to name Clinton as Edwards.

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