U.S. Outlook Is Worst Since '92, Poll Finds

By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Americans are gloomier about the direction of the country than they have been at any point in 15 years, and Democrats hold their biggest advantage since early 1993 as the party better able to deal with the nation's main problems, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Despite more than eight in 10 now saying the country is headed in the wrong direction, coupled with growing disaffection with the Republican Party, Sen. John McCain, the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, remains competitive in a hypothetical general-election matchup with Sen. Barack Obama, the favorite for the Democratic nomination, and he runs almost even with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Those findings indicate that McCain continues to elude some of the anger aimed at his party and at President Bush, whose approval ratings dipped to an all-time low in Post-ABC polling. Maintaining a separate identity will be a key to McCain's chances of winning the White House in November. Overall, Democrats hold a 21-percentage-point advantage over Republicans as the party better equipped to handle the nation's problems.

As the Democratic race nears the end of its primary season, with the next round of voting happening today in West Virginia, this new national poll shows Obama with a 12-point advantage over Clinton as the preferred choice for the nomination.

More than six in 10 Democrats now say Obama is the one with the better shot at winning in November. Although Clinton retains her wide advantage as the more experienced candidate, for the first time Obama has the edge on being considered the stronger leader.

But there is no groundswell of public pressure for Clinton to quit the race, despite trailing in pledged delegates, the popular vote and now superdelegates. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said she should stay in the race.

One reason is that few Democrats seem concerned that the protracted nomination battle will hurt the party's chances in November. Only 27 percent said they thought it had done the party long-term damage. Most said the drawn-out contest has had no impact on the party's prospects (56 percent) or that it has been helpful (15 percent).

And most Democrats said they are confident that the party would rally around Obama should he become the nominee, although fewer than half said they are very confident. African Americans are somewhat more confident than whites, and nearly a quarter of Clinton supporters expressed doubt that the party would find unity once the nomination is settled.

In a hypothetical general-election head-to-head, Obama leads McCain by a slim 51-to-44-percent margin, with the public split 49 percent for Clinton to 46 percent for McCain. Against McCain, Obama does better than Clinton among voters who are African American, college-educated and younger. Clinton draws more support than Obama does against McCain among white voters who are older or female and those whose family incomes are less than $50,000 a year.

Age could be a significant obstacle for McCain. Only three in 10 said they were "entirely comfortable" with the prospect of a 72-year-old new president, about half as many as those who said they would be similarly comfortable with an African American or female president.

McCain romps against Obama among the 16 percent who think the country is headed in the right direction, but among the near-record 82 percent who hold a pessimistic view, Obama runs more than 20 points ahead of McCain. Similarly, about seven in 10 of those who disapprove of Bush said they would back Obama over McCain, while McCain picks up most of those who are still behind the president. The trouble for McCain is that Bush's approval has slipped to 31 percent, and has been lower than 50 percent for 38 consecutive months.

The economy remains the biggest issue on Americans' minds, although its importance dipped for the first time since last fall. In the new survey, 36 percent cited the economy and jobs as their top voting issue; 21 percent named the Iraq war. All other issues remained in single digits, including health care and the price of oil and gasoline.

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