Poll Finds Independent Voters Split Between McCain, Obama

Sen. Barack Obama gives a speech about competitiveness during a stop at Kettering High School in Flint, Mich.
Sen. Barack Obama gives a speech about competitiveness during a stop at Kettering High School in Flint, Mich. (By Bill Pugliano -- Getty Images)
By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Buoyed by a public mood favoring Democrats, Sen. Barack Obama begins the general-election campaign holding a narrow advantage over Sen. John McCain, with independent voters emerging as a constituency critical to the Republican's hopes of winning the presidency in November.

In the first Washington Post-ABC News poll since the Democratic nomination contest ended, Obama and McCain are even among political independents, a shift toward the presumptive Republican nominee over the past month. On the issues, independents see McCain as more credible on fighting terrorism and are split evenly on who is the stronger leader and better on the Iraq war. But on other key attributes and issues -- including the economy -- Obama has advantages among independents.

The presumptive Democratic nominee emerged from his primary-season battle against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton with improved personal ratings overall, but with no appreciable gain in the head-to-head competition with McCain. Majorities view both men favorably, but about twice as many said they have a "strongly favorable" impression of Obama as said so of McCain.

But Obama still has some work to do to unite the Democratic Party. Almost nine in 10 Republicans now support McCain, while not quite eight in 10 Democrats said they support Obama. Nearly a quarter of those who said they favored Clinton over Obama for the nomination currently prefer McCain for the general election, virtually unchanged from polls taken before Clinton suspended her campaign.

As Obama considers possible vice presidential running mates, Clinton remains atop the list: Unprompted, 46 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents pick her as their top choice, and no other Democrat breaks out of single digits. But it is unclear from the poll whether Clinton would help or hurt Obama's chances. About two in 10 said her placement on the ticket would make them more apt to support the Democrats, but about the same proportion said it would push them toward the GOP. Most said it would not make much of a difference either way.

The new survey shows Obama running ahead of McCain by 48 percent to 42 percent among all adults. Among registered voters, the margin is essentially the same -- 49 percent to 45 percent. At this point four years ago, Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry held identical leads over President Bush among all adults and among registered voters.

McCain will be running into stiff headwinds over the next five months. Bush's approval rating hit another low in Post-ABC polling and now is 29 percent, with 68 percent saying they disapprove of the job he is doing -- 54 percent strongly. Among the dwindling number who approve of the way Bush is handling his job, 80 percent back McCain. Among the much higher number who disapprove, 26 percent support McCain.

In general, 57 percent said McCain would continue to lead the country as Bush has and 38 percent said he would chart a new course.

Two other indicators point to problems for McCain. Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country hit an all-time high this month, with 84 percent saying the nation is now seriously on the wrong track. And asked which party they favor for the House this fall, 52 percent said Democratic and 37 percent said Republican.

McCain needs support from independents because in recent elections, partisans have overwhelmingly supported their own party's candidates, and self-identified Democrats now outnumber Republicans. If Obama is able to consolidate Democratic voters, McCain will need to capture a sizable percentage of independents to win the White House.

But he starts that campaign with several deficits, including an enthusiasm gap. A majority of voters, 55 percent, said they are enthusiastic about Obama's candidacy, while 42 percent said the same for McCain. Three times as many said they are "very enthusiastic" about Obama as said so about McCain.

Even among McCain and Obama supporters, there is a clear difference in interest.

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