By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Three weeks before the first contest of the 2008 campaign, Republicans remain sharply divided over whom to choose as their presidential nominee and which of the five leading candidates best embodies the core values of a fractured GOP, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani continues to lead the Republican field in the national poll, but his support is at its lowest point this year. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, has more than doubled his support among likely GOP voters since early November and runs just behind Giuliani.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) also draw double-digit support in the new poll, hinting at a potential free-for-all when the voting begins in Iowa and New Hampshire early next month.
The Democratic race nationally continues to feature Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) far ahead of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and the rest of the field. But a highly competitive campaign in Iowa pitting Clinton, Obama and former senator John Edwards (N.C.), along with signs of a tightening contest in New Hampshire, suggest that the Democratic race is also far from settled.
The new poll found that the issues driving voters are shifting rapidly. Concerns about the economy are on the rise and assessments of current conditions in Iraq have eased slightly, propelling the nation's economic picture and jobs to the top of people's concerns. Although the range of issues could further destabilize the nomination battles, most of the uncertainty stems from more basic questions about the candidates.
In the Republican race, Huckabee's surge in Iowa, where he has overtaken longtime front-runner Romney in recent polls, has begun to translate to the national stage, further shaking up a race that has been volatile from the outset.
Although many of the candidates have been campaigning for nearly a year, the Republican electorate appears more fragmented now than at any previous point in the race. Asked which candidate best reflects the core values of the Republican Party, 18 percent said McCain, Giuliani and Huckabee were each cited by 16 percent, 14 percent picked Romney, and 13 percent named Thompson. As if to punctuate the confusion, 16 percent said they had no opinion.
There was a similar lack of consensus about who is the GOP's most honest and trustworthy candidate, or who is tops on pivotal social issues, such as abortion and same-sex civil unions. But Giuliani, long the national front-runner, continues to have wide advantages in being perceived as the strongest leader and most electable of the GOP candidates. He also holds narrow advantages on who is best able to handle terrorism and the economy.
Despite his overall rise in the poll, Huckabee was competitive only on social issues, where 17 percent trust him most, compared with 16 percent for Romney, 15 percent for Giuliani, and 11 percent each for McCain and Thompson.
Immigration also produced mixed opinions. Giuliani, who has been attacked by Romney for being too soft on illegal immigrants as mayor, enjoyed an advantage over Romney on who could best deal with this issue. In Iowa and New Hampshire, however, Romney has the edge on the issue. And running about even with Giuliani on immigration nationally is McCain, whose campaign was damaged earlier by his support for comprehensive immigration reform.
Among all Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, Giuliani's national lead is as low as it has been since the campaign began. Among likely Republican voters, 25 percent now back Giuliani and 19 percent back Huckabee, whose support jumped from 9 percent last month. Romney ranks third at 17 percent, with Thompson at 14 percent and McCain at 12 percent. In the new poll, Giuliani is at his lowest level to date among conservatives, down nine points over the past month, to 19 percent.
Giuliani's national standing is down from last month, and his support appears far from solid; 28 percent back him "strongly," down from 45 percent in November. Over that time, Giuliani has stumbled 20 percentage points among those Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who are following the election "very closely."
Romney, in a speech in College Station, Tex., last week, addressed concerns about his Mormon faith with an eye toward reassuring evangelical Christians that he shares their values.
Last December, 39 percent of Republican evangelicals said they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate. That has declined to 27 percent. But 17 percent of white evangelical Protestants in the new poll said there is "no chance" they would vote for a Mormon, not significantly different from the percentage saying so in February.
White evangelical Protestants back Huckabee by an 11-point margin over Giuliani. Evangelical support for Huckabee has tripled since late September, to 29 percent. Thirteen percent of white evangelicals said they would vote for Romney.
Huckabee's challenge is to pick up support more broadly. While 20 percent of conservatives back his candidacy, he draws only 8 percent from moderate and liberal Republicans.
The Democratic race has changed little nationally, according to the new poll, with Clinton now enjoying the support of 53 percent of likely Democratic voters to 23 percent for Obama. Edwards remains in third with 10 percent. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) registered in the low single digits.
There has been some softening among both Clinton and Obama supporters since last month: 49 percent of Clinton's supporters back her "strongly," down from 57 percent last month and under 50 percent for the first time in the campaign. Forty-one percent of Obama voters now back him "strongly," down from 50 percent last month.
Clinton's standing on attributes and issues also remains strong. She holds a 3 to 1 edge in being perceived as the strongest leader in the field and a nearly 6 to 1 advantage as the candidate with the best experience to be president. On the issues, she holds 2 to 1 or greater leads on four top issues: the economy, Iraq, health care and terrorism, advantages that have remained steady since late September.
Nationally, Democrats say they put little stock in talk show host Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Obama. More than eight in 10 said her support will not make a difference in their vote; 8 percent said it makes them more likely to vote for Obama, while 10 percent said it would make them less likely to support him. At the same time, among black women, two in 10 said they are more likely to support Obama because of Winfrey's recommendation. (African American women went for Clinton over Obama in the poll, 54 percent to 34 percent.)
Among Democrats, the issue of the economy and jobs has soared, with a quarter now calling it the election's single top concern, putting it on par with the war in Iraq among the top issues. Since September, Iraq has faded somewhat as the single most important issue. But there is little evidence of that in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Iraq and health care were the dominant issues among Democrats in Post-ABC News polls.
A broader set of issues drive GOP voters nationally and in the early states. The economy and Iraq get frequent mentions, but so, too, does the U.S. campaign against terrorism, which only 3 percent of Democrats call their most important voting issue. Overall, five issues, including immigration and health care, reach double digits as top one or two concerns among Republicans.
The poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 6 to 9 among a random sample of 1,136 adults. The results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. The sample of Republicans includes GOP-leaning independents and has an error margin of plus or minus five points; it is four points for the sample of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.