By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 6, 2008
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) kicks off his general-election campaign trailing both potential Democratic nominees in hypothetical matchups, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) leads McCain, who captured the delegates needed to claim the Republican nomination Tuesday night, by 12 percentage points among all adults in the poll; Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) holds a six-point lead over the GOP nominee. Both Democrats are buoyed by moderates and independents when going head to head with McCain and benefit from sustained negative public assessments of President Bush and the war in Iraq.
About two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job and think the war was not worth fighting, and most hold those positions "strongly." A slim majority also doubt that the United States is making progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq, even as McCain and others extol recent successes there.
These views are closely related to voters' choices: McCain does poorly against Clinton and Obama among those who disapprove of the president and those opposing the war.
Among independents, those who see improvements in Iraq prefer McCain to either Democrat, while six in 10 of those more skeptical of progress would go for a Democrat.
Another obstacle for McCain may be his age. More than a quarter of those polled said they are less inclined to support McCain because he would be the oldest person ever to become president. The percentage discouraged by McCain's age is more than double that of people who would be less enthusiastic about supporting Obama because he is African American or Clinton because she is a woman.
McCain, however, has eight months to overcome those perceptions, and when squared against Obama, who has amassed the most delegates in the race for the Democratic nomination, the senator from Arizona has key advantages on foreign policy.
The poll was conducted before Tuesday's contests, in which Clinton scored victories in Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas while Obama prevailed in Vermont. The victories were Clinton's first in a month, and they further unsettled the Democratic contest.
One bright line in a campaign pitting Obama against McCain would be the one that continues to define the Democratic primary: "change" vs. "experience." Overall, Americans are evenly divided about the candidate qualities that are most important to them: 45 percent said strength and experience, 46 percent said a new direction and new ideas.
Eighty percent of those putting a priority on change opt for Obama, while 68 percent of those favoring a steady hand go for McCain. A similar but more muted dynamic also would apply to Clinton vs. McCain, with the Republican holding a wide lead among those seeking experience and Clinton winning two-thirds of change voters.
Overall, Obama topped McCain on five of eight attributes tested in the poll, but he faces a whopping experience deficit (just as he does against Clinton in the primary campaign) and trails by double digits on leadership and knowledge of world affairs.
Obama also leads McCain on four of the six top issues in the poll: health care, immigration, ethics in government and voters' No. 1 concern, the economy. McCain counters with a wide advantage as the one better suited to handle the U.S. campaign against terrorism, and the two are much more closely paired on the question of who is better on Iraq. Among independents, McCain has the edge on both concerns: He is up by 14 points on Iraq and 18 points on fighting terrorism.
But as for McCain's ability to bring needed change to Washington, 52 percent said he would not do enough in this area, while 41 percent said he would. Nearly as many of those polled said Obama does not have the kind of experience it takes to serve effectively as president, 45 percent, as said he does, 49 percent.
One undercurrent about Obama's historic run is some fear for his safety on the campaign trail. Nearly six in 10 expressed concern that someone might attempt to harm Obama if he were the Democratic nominee.
Concern for Obama peaks among African Americans: More than eight in 10 would be concerned about Obama's safety, including 55 percent who would be "very concerned" (20 percent of whites expressed the same level of fear).
A total of 1,126 randomly selected adults were interviewed by telephone Feb. 28 through March 2. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.