McCain Moves Into Lead; Obama Gains on Clinton
Giuliani Falls to 4th in National Poll

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 14, 2008

The first contests of the 2008 presidential campaign have led to a dramatic shake-up in public opinion nationally, with Sen. John McCain now leading the Republican field and Sen. Barack Obama all but erasing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's once-overwhelming advantage among Democrats, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As the campaigns head into the next round of voting this week, the competitive contests in both parties have captured the public's attention. Four in five are closely tuned in, and a third are "very closely" following the races, a sharp increase from a month ago, and well higher than the proportions saying so at this stage in 2000 or 2004.

Clinton had dominated in national polls from the outset, holding a 30-point advantage as recently as a month ago, but the competitiveness of the first two contests appears to have reverberated among Democrats across the country.

In the new poll, 42 percent of likely Democratic voters support Clinton (N.Y.), and 37 percent back Obama (Ill.). Clinton's support is down 11 percentage points from a month ago, with Obama's up 14. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) held third place with 11 percent, followed by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) at 2 percent.

The big gains by McCain (Ariz.), which come after his victory in the New Hampshire primary, mark the first time he has topped the Republican field in a Post-ABC News national survey. His rise mirrors a dramatic tumble for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who led most national polls throughout 2007.

Giuliani, who finished well back in both Iowa and New Hampshire, ranks fourth in the new poll at 15 percent. McCain, meanwhile, has more than double the support he had a month ago and now stands at 28 percent among likely GOP voters. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who scored a big victory in the Iowa caucuses, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the runner-up in both early contests, sit just above Giuliani, at 20 and 19 percent, respectively.

Former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) registers 8 percent, in single digits for the first time, with only half the support he had in early November. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who got 10 percent of the votes in Iowa and 8 percent in New Hampshire, is at 3 percent; Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) is at 2 percent.

The sudden turnaround in national sentiment partly reflects the continued uncertainty among Republican voters about their field of candidates. Although McCain sits atop the GOP field, only a third of his supporters back him "strongly."

And this week's primaries may further unsettle the race. Victories by McCain over Romney in Michigan on Tuesday and in Saturday's South Carolina GOP primary, where his main rival appears to be Huckabee, would stamp McCain as the front-runner, but stumbles in either contest could further disrupt the GOP nomination battle.

In the Democratic race, opinions shifted decisively after Obama's big win in Iowa and Clinton's narrow victory in New Hampshire.

Despite the dip in support for Clinton, 68 percent of those backing her are "strongly" behind her candidacy. But Obama's support has both grown and deepened: Fifty-six percent are solidly behind him, up from 41 percent last month.

Clinton continues to lead Obama among Democrats, although by a slimmed-down, eight-point edge, while Obama has a 13-point edge among independents. Independent voters helped the senator from Illinois win Iowa and broke heavily for him in New Hampshire. Many of the upcoming contests limit participation to registered Democrats, which Clinton's advisers see as an advantage.

Obama holds a lead of nearly 2 to 1 among African Americans, whose influence will be fully felt in the Jan. 26 Democratic primary in South Carolina, where nearly half of 2004 primary voters were black. In the new poll, 59 percent of black women support Obama and 35 percent back Clinton. Among white women, Clinton's margin over Obama is 20 percentage points.

Obama now leads Clinton among men, 42 percent to 33 percent, and while she retains an advantage among women, it has been severely attenuated. She has an 11 percentage-point lead among women, down from 39 points a month ago. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, women made up 57 percent of Democratic voters, according to Election Day polls.

Although Clinton maintains her edge among women overall in the new poll, Obama has eliminated the 3 to 1 advantage she enjoyed among single women a month ago. Married women go for Clinton over Obama by 53 percent to 30 percent.

The tight competition for the nomination is also reflected on key candidate qualities and issues, where Obama has in some cases neutralized what were big Clinton advantages.

Clinton is still seen as the strongest leader and most electable among the Democratic candidates, but Obama has risen significantly on both counts. Since December, Obama is up 14 points as the strongest leader in the field and 20 points as its most electable candidate, wiping out much of Clinton's 3 to 1 advantage on leadership and her nearly 4 to 1 edge as the one with the best shot to win in November.

Obama has the advantage on which candidate is perceived to be the most honest, a turnaround in the past month, and half now see him as the most inspiring Democrat.

A central, pivotal debate among the Democratic aspirants has been about "change," which was the top quality that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire said they were looking for in a candidate. By a decisive margin, Democrats in the new poll said they prioritize a new direction and new ideas over strength and experience, and about equal percentages indicated that Clinton and Obama would do the most to bring needed change to Washington.

But as he did in both early contests, Obama leads in this national poll among those seeking a fresh approach; he doubles up Clinton among these voters. By contrast, Clinton has a better than 2 to 1 advantage over Obama among those seeking strength and experience.

On the economy, now the election's top issue among both Republicans and Democrats, 46 percent trust Clinton the most and 33 percent Obama, and the two are rated about evenly on the war in Iraq. Last month, Clinton enjoyed large advantages on both. She maintains a wide edge on health care, but Obama is up 12 points on this issue.

Edwards's second-place finish in Iowa has not turned into momentum nationally. In this poll, he slipped six points as the Democrats' most inspiring and most electable candidate. Just 10 percent rank him as the most likely to bring change to Washington.

In the Republican campaign, McCain's success in New Hampshire has translated into across-the-board gains among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents. By a 2 to 1 margin over Giuliani, McCain is seen as the candidate with the best experience to be president. He also tops the field on electability and leadership for the first time.

Voters' long search for a GOP standard-bearer appears somewhat clearer than it was a month ago. Twenty-seven percent said McCain best reflects core Republican values, a nine-point increase from a month ago, putting him slightly ahead of a pack that still has five GOP candidates scoring in the double digits on this measure.

Conservatives remain split in their choice of candidate, with 25 percent supporting McCain, 23 percent Huckabee, 17 percent Romney and 16 percent Giuliani. McCain, never the darling of the right, has a wide lead among moderates and liberals. Three in 10 white evangelical Protestants support Huckabee, but 25 percent now back McCain, up from 12 percent last month.

On issues, McCain has double-digit leads on international affairs, Iraq, terrorism and even immigration. His candidacy had been hurt last spring by his support for comprehensive immigration legislation.

McCain and Huckabee are competing closely on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, with conservatives breaking for Huckabee and moderate or liberal Republicans preferring McCain. No Republican has a clear advantage on dealing with the economy or taxes.

The poll was conducted Jan. 9-12 among a random national sample of 1,130 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is plus or minus three percentage points.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company