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.
Obama holds double-digit advantages over McCain on health care, gas prices and the economy. McCain has a 21-point lead on handling the U.S. battle against terrorism, which proved the marquee issue of the 2004 presidential contest. Obama and McCain run almost even on managing the war in Iraq and on immigration.
And on candidate attributes, Obama has a substantial lead as the one who is more likely to bring needed change to Washington, as well as sizable advantages on temperament, empathy and clarity of vision. McCain has a whopping advantage on experience and is widely seen as having greater knowledge of world affairs.
Obama and McCain are more evenly matched on leadership and "personal and ethical standards." In early March, McCain had an advantage as the stronger leader, while Obama had an edge on ethics.
Overall, Americans are evenly divided on whether a steady hand or a new direction and new ideas are more important, which is one big reason the general election would be closer today than generic impressions of the two parties suggest. McCain handily beats either Democrat among those prioritizing experience, while Clinton and Obama outpace McCain among those looking for a new course for the country.
Independents will be a key voter group in the fall, and currently they split 51 percent for Obama to 42 percent for McCain. In a Clinton-McCain matchup, 49 percent would back McCain, 46 percent Clinton.
McCain's relative strength among independents is a primary reason he outperforms the broader GOP. While more than four in 10 independents choose him against either Democrat, they prefer Democrats over Republicans by a 2 to 1 margin to cope with the country's central concerns.
At the same time, while McCain has made considerable progress in consolidating support within his party, only 47 percent of conservatives said they would definitely back him over Obama. A higher percentage of liberals, 56 percent, said they would be firmly behind Obama.
Much of the focus in the Democratic race has been on Obama's difficulty in winning the votes of working-class whites. Against Obama, McCain is ahead among whites without college degrees by 52 percent to 40 percent, not that different from McCain's advantage over Clinton in this new poll.
On another racially tinged issue, about six in 10 Americans said Obama has distanced himself about the right amount from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., but 27 percent said he has not gone far enough. These findings are little changed from April, even though Obama offered a much stronger denunciation of Wright after the earlier poll was taken.
Should Obama be the Democratic nominee, Clinton is by far the most popular choice to be his running mate. On an open-ended question, about four in 10 Democrats named her as their choice for the vice presidential nomination, with former senator John Edwards a distant second, at 10 percent.
But most Americans, including a slim majority of Democrats, said putting Clinton on the ticket would not have much effect on their vote in November.
Among Republicans, the sweepstakes appear to be even more wide open. Asked their preference for vice president, 12 percent said former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and 7 percent named former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. But nearly half, 47 percent, expressed no opinion.
The findings are based on telephone interviews with a random national sample of 1,122 adults from May 8 to 11. Results for the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins for subgroups are larger.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.