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.
Overall, about half of likely caucus-goers expressed a preference for what Obama is claiming to offer, which is a new direction and new ideas, while 39 percent prioritized strength and experience. Among those who are looking for new ideas and a new direction, 37 percent supported Obama, 31 percent Edwards and 15 percent Clinton. Among those who cite strength and experience, Clinton had a wide lead, with 38 percent saying they would vote for her, and Edwards second at 21 percent. Obama and Richardson trailed with 14 percent each.
Edwards's relative strength on both sides of this critical equation underscores how different the Iowa contest is from a hypothetical national primary. In national polls, Clinton has a 32-point lead among Democrats who said they are looking for a candidate with strength and experience. And while she is running even with Obama and well ahead of Edwards nationally among those who said they prefer a candidate with fresh ideas, she is far behind both on that quality in Iowa.
Clinton has built her support both nationally and in Iowa on several key leadership and political attributes, one of the most important being a widespread perception that she is ready for the White House. Half of all likely caucus-goers rated her as the candidate with the best experience to be president, with Edwards a distant second at 15 percent and Richardson at 13 percent. Seven percent rated Obama, the first-term senator from Illinois, as the candidate with the best experience.
Clinton also was judged most often to be the strongest leader among the Democratic candidates and the one with the best chance of winning the 2008 general election. Thirty-five percent of likely caucus attendees rated her the most electable in the Democratic field, with Obama and Edwards in the low 20s.
Clinton also had an edge as the candidate "best able to handle the situation in Iraq," which could prove critical in the caucuses. Nearly nine in 10 likely caucus-goers in this poll said the Iraq war was not worth fighting, with the overwhelming majority saying so "strongly."
But Clinton rated well below the other top contenders on two important personal attributes. Just 14 percent of those surveyed called her the most likable Democrat in the field, and an equally low percentage said she is the most honest and trustworthy.
Edwards and Obama were rated almost equally on the majority of the attributes, including most likable, most honest, best at understanding people's problems, being closest to those surveyed on the issues and dealing with Iraq.
Obama's hope for winning in Iowa appears to depend heavily on his ability to turn younger voters out on caucus night. Iowa's caucus process demands far more of voters than do presidential primaries. Participants must spend several hours at a caucus, and there are no secret ballots. All voting is done in public.
Among Iowa voters younger than 45, Obama has the advantage -- 39 percent, compared with 24 percent for Clinton and 22 percent for Edwards. Among those age 45 and older, Clinton and Edwards were tied at 28 percent, with Obama trailing at 18 percent. Four years ago, these older-than-45 voters made up two-thirds of all caucus participants.
In this poll, 31 percent of likely caucus-goers said the upcoming caucuses will be their first. Half of those younger than 45 said this would be their first time out. Converting interest into commitment among younger voters is one big challenge facing Obama's team.
Clinton wins greater support among women than men and more support among those earning less than $50,000 annually than those who earn more, similar to patterns in national polls. Edwards, who has positioned himself as the most liberal of the top three candidates, trails Clinton and Obama among liberals in Iowa.
Obama's Illinois ties have spilled over into Iowa. The senator runs best in eastern Iowa, which borders his home state. Edwards does best in more rural and conservative western Iowa, which is GOP territory in general elections. Clinton's support is about even across the state.
The poll provides stark evidence of how intense the early campaigning has been. The 71 percent of voters who have already received a telephone call from one of the campaigns is about equal to the percentage of likely caucus-goers who reported getting called in December 2003, the month before the 2004 caucuses.
The portion having already attended one or more campaign events, 40 percent, is up somewhat from that time, and the percentage donating money to one of the candidates is about as high. A third of likely voters have already received e-mails from a campaign, and a third have visited a candidate's Web site.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.