By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama holds his biggest advantage of the presidential campaign as the candidate best prepared to fix the nation's ailing economy, but lingering concerns about his readiness to handle international crises are keeping the race competitive, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Overall, the Democrat has a lead of 50 percent to 42 percent over Republican Sen. John McCain among registered voters nationwide, lifted by a big edge among women, and he has also regained an edge among political independents. But it is Obama's 19-point lead on the economy that has become a particularly steep challenge for McCain.
Economic concerns continue to eclipse other issues, with half the country saying the economy will be "extremely important" to their vote. Gasoline and energy prices, which voters rarely mentioned at the start of the year, come in just behind. The Iraq war, which was again the subject of direct engagement between Obama and McCain yesterday, ranks third. A cluster of domestic issues, including education, health care and Social Security, ranked behind the war, as did the issue of terrorism.
Obama continues to hold an edge over McCain on many domestic policy areas.
The campaign is playing out against the backdrop of a leadership crisis in Washington, with Americans remaining in a generally sour mood about their representatives in the nation's capital. In the new survey, President Bush's overall approval rating hit another record low in Post-ABC polling: Twenty-eight percent said they approve of the way he is handling his job, while 69 percent disapprove, including 56 percent who strongly disapprove.
Public impressions of Congress are even worse, with 23 percent giving the legislative branch a positive rating. That is the lowest public assessment of Congress since October 1994, just before Republicans seized control of both houses for the first time since 1954. While congressional Democrats, with 35 percent approval, remain more popular than their Republican counterparts, who have 25 percent approval, both are rated negatively.
The overall political climate still bodes poorly for Republicans this fall, but the presidential race is relatively close, in part because of persistent doubts about both candidates. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said that some things about McCain worry them, and nearly two-thirds said so of Obama.
Questions about Obama's experience remain, particularly his ability to deal with national security and international issues. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed said that his level of experience would hamper his ability to serve effectively as president, while 40 percent said it would help. And asked whether he would make a good commander in chief, 48 percent said yes.
While 56 percent of respondents said Obama knows enough about world affairs to be a good president, 72 percent said so about McCain. Head to head, McCain was judged as the one with greater knowledge of the world by more than 2 to 1. The senator from Arizona also holds a narrow edge as the candidate better suited to deal with an unexpected major crisis, and he is more trusted, by a six-point margin, on the issue of fighting terrorism.
In other areas, however, there is more parity between the two candidates. On handling the situation with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and international affairs in general, about as many trust Obama as McCain, just as is the case with the war in Iraq, where 47 percent have more confidence in McCain and 45 percent in Obama.
The senator from Illinois has begun to take steps to boost his foreign policy credentials, with a major speech yesterday on Iraq, Afghanistan and other international challenges. He is preparing a trip that will further raise his profile, with scheduled visits to Iraq, Afghanistan, other Middle Eastern countries and major European capitals.
Part of his goal will be to demonstrate that an Obama presidency would help restore the United States' image around the world, which 82 percent of the respondents in the new poll said has been badly damaged during Bush's presidency. By 2 to 1, Americans think that Obama would do more to improve the country's image abroad than McCain would.
McCain's challenges, by contrast, are more apparent on domestic matters, a potentially significant political problem for him. More than 6 in 10 of those surveyed said their financial situation causes them stress, and there is widespread anxiety among voters dealing with news of layoffs, rising oil prices, shaky financial institutions and a tumbling stock market.
Asked whom they trust more to handle the economy, 54 percent named Obama, while 35 percent said McCain. Obama also holds double-digit leads on dealing with the federal budget deficit and on immigration. On social issues such as abortion and same-sex civil unions, 56 percent prefer Obama, 32 percent McCain.
Another area of vulnerability for McCain is his age. He will turn 72 this summer and would be the oldest first-term president. More than 4 in 10 Americans said they thought McCain's age would hurt him in the White House, 33 percent said it would help, and the rest said it would make no difference or had no opinion.
One positive for both candidates is that most of their supporters are solidly behind them. Seventy-two percent of those backing Obama said they will definitely vote for him, and a similar percentage of McCain's supporters, 71 percent, said they will not waver. Sixteen percent of Obama's backers and 28 percent of McCain's said their support was primarily in opposition to the other candidate. That is a sharp contrast to 2004, when 56 percent of those supporting Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry at this stage in the campaign said they were doing so mostly because they were "against Bush."
Majorities of Americans said Obama and McCain have each done enough to explain why they want to be president, but the public is evenly split over whether Obama has sufficiently described what he means by "change," the central theme of his campaign. Even some Democratic analysts have encouraged the Democrat to do more to link his call for change with specific policies and priorities to give a clearer picture of how he would govern.
Neither candidate has been successfully tagged as a "flip-flopper," at least not more than the other: Forty-nine percent said Obama has been flip-flopping on the issues, while 47 percent said the same about McCain. Asked who has been more consistent on his issue positions, 45 percent said Obama, and 43 percent said McCain. It is unclear how much such charges would hurt: Nearly 8 in 10, 78 percent, said it is more important for a candidate to adjust positions to changing circumstances than to stick to his original stands (18 percent prioritize consistency).
Obama's current eight-point lead depends in large part on support from women. Men divide about evenly, while the Democrat leads by 15 points among women (54 percent to 39 percent). Obama has now pulled even with McCain among white women, for his best showing among this group since April.
Overall, though, there are still holdouts among those who backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Democratic primaries. In the new poll, 23 percent of those who wanted Clinton to prevail said they will vote for McCain, about the same number as in Post-ABC polls since early March. But those Clinton backers who do support Obama are not doing so grudgingly, as three-quarters of them said their vote will be more pro-Obama than anti-McCain.
Among independents, the poll shows Obama with a lead of 49 percent to 40 percent. Last month the challengers were essentially tied among independents.
Obama now leads by 2 to 1 among voters 18 to 34 years old. Among seniors, 45 percent support McCain and 40 percent back Obama.
Among white voters, McCain has an advantage of 50 percent to 42 percent , while 94 percent of African Americans support Obama. The candidates are tied among whites who earn less than $50,000 a year, while McCain leads by 10 percentage points among those earning more than that.
The poll was conducted by telephone July 10 to 13 among a random national sample of 1,119 adults, including 971 registered voters. The margin of sampling error for the full sample and for voters is plus or minus three percentage points; it is larger for subgroups.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.