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Poll Finds Independent Voters Split Between McCain, Obama

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.

Ninety-one percent of Obama's supporters are enthusiastic about his candidacy, including 54 percent who are very enthusiastic. Fewer of McCain's backers are as ardent: 73 percent are enthusiastic about his run, but just 17 percent are very much so. There appears to be some leftover animosity toward him on the right. Overall, 13 percent of conservatives are very enthusiastic about McCain, compared with nearly half of liberals who feel as strongly about Obama.

By a slim 50 to 43 percent margin, Americans place a higher priority on a new direction and new ideas for the country than on strength and experience. Obama wins more than 80 percent of "change voters," but among those who prize a candidate who would provide a steady, experienced hand, just 10 percent back Obama, down from 27 percent a month ago.

Experience appears to be Obama's clearest weakness. Despite winning a grueling primary-election contest, he has gained no ground on the question of whether he has the experience needed to serve effectively as president. Just 50 percent of Americans said Obama has the necessary experience, almost the same as in early March.

Still, McCain holds no significant advantage over Obama on the question of whether the two are "safe" or "risky" choices to lead the country. Fifty-six percent called McCain a safe choice, while 52 percent said so about Obama. The two candidates are also evenly matched on the question of who is the stronger leader, with 46 percent of the public rating each as top.

On four other attributes tested in the poll, Obama has significant advantages. He leads by 34 points as the candidate who would do more to bring needed change to Washington, by 18 points on empathy, by 15 points on standing up to lobbyists and special interests, and by 13 points on better representing people's "personal values."

McCain's clearest advantage on the issues is on dealing with terrorism (he has a 14-point edge). He also has a narrow edge on who is better equipped to handle international affairs. But on Iraq, the public is evenly split, with 47 percent saying they trust McCain more and 46 percent having more faith in Obama.

Independents divide 45 percent for McCain to 43 percent for Obama on the question of Iraq, in part because they are conflicted about the current situation there. While opinion is largely settled about the decision to go to war -- 62 percent of independents call the conflict "not worth fighting" -- they are divided about whether the United States is winning or losing in Iraq and about whether to withdraw troops. Forty-nine percent of independents want to remove U.S. forces even if civil order is not restored there; 46 percent would prefer to stay until that point.

But among independents and the broader electorate, McCain is in a far weaker position on domestic issues. Overall, Obama leads by 16 points on the economy, which continues to top the list of the campaign's most important issues. He leads by 20 points on gasoline prices and health care, by 27 points on global warming and other environmental issues, and by 32 points on dealing with issues of special concern to women.

One point of uncertainty for both men in the poll is that despite more than a year of campaigning in primaries, neither candidate's positions on important concerns are widely familiar to voters. About half of those surveyed said they knew "only some" or "little or none" about Obama's and McCain's stands on specific issues.

Nevertheless, 52 percent call Obama's views "about right," more than said so about McCain's (40 percent). Thirty-six percent consider Obama "too liberal," and a similar percentage say McCain is "too conservative." The difference is that 19 percent view McCain as too liberal; 5 percent dub Obama too conservative.

There is no gender gap in this poll, with Obama holding a seven-point edge among men and a six-point advantage among women. Whites break for McCain by 12 points, while African Americans support Obama by better than a 9 to 1 margin.

Obama runs about even with McCain among single white women but trails by 20 points among married white women. Obama has the support of nearly seven in 10 white women who describe themselves as feminists. Among all seniors, McCain leads by 12 points, and he is up 22 points among whites ages 65 or older. Obama beats McCain by better than 2 to 1 among those younger than 30.

The poll was conducted by telephone June 12 to 15 among a national random sample of 1,125 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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