By Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008 10:01 AM
Democrat Barack Obama holds narrow leads over GOP rival John McCain in Colorado and Michigan, two of the most competitive states in two of the most competitive regions of the country heading into the general-election campaign, according to surveys conducted by Quinnipiac University for washingtonpost.com and the Wall Street Journal.
In two other states that were closely contested in the 2004 presidential election -- Wisconsin and Minnesota -- Obama holds double-digit edges among likely voters, an indication that these states may not be in the swing category this election. The Democratic Party's presidential nominee carried both Wisconsin and Minnesota in each of the last four elections, although Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) won each by slim margins in 2004.
The four surveys are the kickoff of a four-month effort to measure voter sentiment in key battleground states. They echo several recent national polls -- including surveys conducted for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg -- showing Obama with a double-digit lead over McCain, the GOP candidate. However, other national surveys -- including the Gallup daily tracking poll -- show the race to be much closer.
The path to the presidency runs through a handful of battleground states, as both Obama and McCain seek the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Thus, the four states surveyed in this project provide a snapshot of where things stand less than five months before Election Day.
If the 2004 election was a battle of the bases, the battleground surveys suggest the 2008 fight is shaping up to be one in which independent voters who align with neither party are the crucial bloc.
In all four surveys, respondents who identified themselves as Democrats or Republicans supported their party's candidate with something close to unanimity. Obama took between 86 percent (Michigan) and 93 percent (Colorado) among Democrats, while McCain scored similarly high numbers among self-identified Republicans.
With partisans loyally aligning behind their respective parties, Obama's edge in each of the four states is founded on two factors: An increased tendency for voters to identify as Democrats and a solid margin for the Democrat among independent voters.
Democrats held an edge over Republicans in three of the four states -- ranging from an 11-point gap among self-identified partisans in Wisconsin to an eight-point edge in Michigan. In Colorado, the survey found that Republicans comprised 29 percent of the electorate, compared with 28 percent for Democrats and 38 percent calling themselves independents. That dead heat on party identification, however, marks a major gain for Democrats from 2004, when exit polling showed Republicans with a nearly ten-point edge in the state.
Independents, who were widely written off during the 2004 election in favor of appeals by the candidates to their respective party bases, look likely to play a central role in picking the next president in these four battleground states. And for now, Obama has a clear edge over McCain among independent voters in all four states. That lead is largest in Minnesota, where Obama takes 54 percent among independents compared with just 33 percent for McCain. The Democrat's lead was 13 points in Wisconsin, 12 in Colorado and eight in Michigan.
Obama's lead among independents is all the more important given the large number of voters eschewing the two major parties in each state. In Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, roughly three-in-ten voters identify as independents; in Colorado that number is closer to four in ten.
The political environment in each state suggests a decidedly uphill climb for McCain in the general election. In Colorado, just 31 percent of voters approve of the way President Bush is handling his job, while 63 percent disapprove. In Michigan, the numbers are even more dismal, with a meager 26 percent expressing approval of Bush and a whopping 67 percent disapproving.
Asked whether they were satisfied with the "way things are going in the nation today," more than eight-in-ten Michigan voters said they were either "somewhat" (27 percent) or "very" (56 percent) dissatisfied. In Colorado, 76 percent described themselves as "dissatisfied".
Although Colorado and Michigan vary widely in terms of their demographics, the issues of importance to voters in each are remarkably similar in the polling.
The economy is the dominant issue in each state, with 56 percent in Michigan calling it their most important voting concern and 47 percent saying the same in Colorado. Asked to name a specific economic worry, more than four-in-ten voters in each state chose gas prices.
The war in Iraq clocked in as the second most important overall issue -- 19 percent in Colorado, 16 percent in Michigan -- while health care was the only other issue to rank in double digits in the two states. Terrorism was named as the most important issue by eight percent of voters in both Michigan and Colorado. In Colorado, illegal immigration could well be a sleeper issue; nine percent of all voters called it a critical issue, including 15 percent of self-identified Republicans.
Obama has focused predominantly on the economy since he secured enough delegates to claim the Democratic nomination early this month. McCain, meanwhile, has spoken out forcefully on the need for energy reform as well as the threat posed to America by Islamic terrorists. Asked recently by Fortune magazine to name the most pressing economic threat to the country, McCain responded: "I would think that the absolute gravest threat is the struggle that we're in against radical Islamic extremism, which can affect, if they prevail, our very existence."
More than eight-in-ten voters in Colorado and Michigan said that whom the presidential nominee names as his running-mate was either "very" or "somewhat" important in deciding their vote.
But even as Obama and Clinton gathered this week with their top fundraisers in Washington for a party unity event, there were signs that Democrats were less than keen about the prospects of an Obama-Clinton ticket.
In Colorado, 45 percent of Democrats said they would like to see Obama pick Clinton, while 43 percent said they would oppose such a choice. The numbers were slightly better in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where 52 percent and 51 percent, respectively, approved of an Obama-Clinton ticket. In Michigan 56 percent said Obama should pick Clinton while just 29 percent said he should not.
One major factor in the seeming lack of intensity around Clinton as vice president may well have to do with her husband, former president Bill Clinton. In each of the four states, more than 20 percent of Democrats and roughly four-in-ten independents said that the former president could be a "problem" for an Obama administration, a surprisingly large number perhaps born of the controversial role Bill Clinton played during the primary process.
The polls were conducted in each state from June 17 to June 24 by Quinnipiac University. The sample sizes and margins of error in each state were:
* Colorado: 1,351 voters; +/-2.7 percent.
* Michigan: 1,411 voters; +/- 2.6 percent.
* Minnesota: 1,572 voters; +/-2.5 percent.
* Wisconsin: 1,537 voters; +/-2.5 percent.
Washington Post polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this story.