A Chance for the Candidates' Wives to Court Support

By Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 25, 2008

As Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain prepare for prominent appearances at the party nominating conventions, both are viewed more favorably than not, even though a substantial slice of the electorate has yet to form a firm opinion.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds little change in public perceptions of the two potential first ladies since the primaries ended in early June. About half of all registered voters now view each favorably, with three in 10 holding unfavorable impressions of Obama and two in 10 of McCain. A third expressed no opinion about McCain, and about two in 10 did of Obama. Both women will hit the convention stage with a broadly positive base on which to build.

Post-convention poll bounces are typically associated with candidates, but their spouses also can use the conventions to increase support. In 1992, Hillary Rodham Clinton took the stage in New York with a 45 percent favorable rating, according to a Gallup-CNN-USA Today poll. Thirty percent held unfavorable impressions of her. After her speech, that initial 15-point net positive rating increased to a 27-point advantage, mirroring the gains made by her husband against President George H.W. Bush.

Similarly, Elizabeth Dole's 1996 convention speech, delivered in a talk-show style without a podium, boosted her already-positive ratings from 51 percent to 58 percent in post-convention Gallup polling.

Both McCain and Obama have largely been treading water in public opinion, but their convention speeches present an opportunity to notch bigger shifts than they have earned in the past two months. Obama will speak tonight at the Democratic convention. McCain will speak on the third night of the Republican convention next week.

Independents have warmed to both women over the summer. More than half of those in the middle of the political spectrum now hold positive views of Obama and McCain.

By contrast, Republicans have held basically steady in their views of McCain, as Democrats have of Obama, although both women have earned more deeply favorable views from their fellow partisans.

Simultaneously, a June gender gap in views of Obama has largely faded, with 53 percent of women and 48 percent of men now holding favorable views of her. McCain posted gains among women, half of whom now have a positive take.

Following patterns set by their husbands, Obama fares far better among African Americans and has greater appeal among younger women than does McCain (61 percent favorable, compared with 45 percent), while McCain fares slightly better among women 45 and over (53 percent favorable, compared with 48 percent favorable toward Obama).

Among those who said they would vote for Obama's husband, three-quarters had a positive impression of her, while seven in 10 of those backing McCain's husband had a favorable view of her.

This Washington Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 19-22 among a random national sample of 916 registered voters. Results among registered voters have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. It is larger for subgroups.

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