May 1, 2008

Obama’s Image Slips, His Lead Over Clinton Disappears

Section 1: Impressions and Images of the Candidates

The continuing and increasingly bitter primary battle in the Democratic Party is taking a small but noticeable toll on the personal images of both Clinton and Obama. Though both remain popular among Democratic voters, favorable ratings for Clinton and Obama are lower now than they were two months ago. And on a range of personal traits, both candidates are somewhat less well regarded by Democratic voters now than even a month ago. On the Republican side, voter impressions of John McCain have remained stable over the past few months

Obama’s favorable rating among voters overall is now 52%, down five points from late February. His unfavorable rating rose eight points (from 34% to 42%) in the past month alone. Among Democratic voters, 70% now have a positive impression of Obama, six points lower than in March, but the drop among white Democrats with annual incomes of less $50,000 the decline was much larger (17 points). Among Republicans, Obama’s unfavorable rating has risen 10 points since March, from 60% to 70%. Among independent voters, however, Obama’s image has been relatively stable: 59% now have a favorable opinion of him, about the same as last month (58%).

Hillary Clinton’s overall favorable rating has changed very little in the past two months; 49% of voters currently have a favorable impression, down one point from late February. But Democrats today (72% favorable) are somewhat less positive than in February, when 81% regarded her favorably. Impressions of Clinton among independents are unchanged.

Meanwhile, voters’ impressions of John McCain are little different than they have been over the past two months: 50% have a favorable impression, 40% an unfavorable one. About half of independent voters (52%) have a favorable impression of McCain, which is a little higher than Clinton’s rating among independents (46%) but a little lower than Obama’s (59%). McCain is better regarded among Democrats (28% favorable) than Hillary Clinton is among Republicans (19%). A quarter of Republicans (25%) have a favorable view of Obama.

Candidate Traits

McCain is well-regarded on a number of personal traits. Nine-in-ten voters agreed that he is patriotic, and 60% or more regard him as tough, honest, and down-to-earth. Independents are just as likely as Republicans to describe him as patriotic and tough, and nearly two-thirds of independents (64%) say he’s honest and that he is down-to-earth.

At the same time, relatively few voters say the negative descriptor of phony applies to McCain (26%), and only somewhat more say that he is hard-to-like (37%) or arrogant (36%). Fewer than half of Democrats ascribe any of these negative traits to McCain. However, just 39% of voters overall say that McCain is inspiring, and even among Republicans just 58% say this.

Barack Obama matches McCain on the positive traits of honesty (61%) and being down-to-earth (60%), though the number seeing him as down-to-earth declined seven points overall since last month. On both of these traits he is better regarded than Hillary Clinton, who is seen by fewer than half of all voters as down-to-earth (48%) or honest (42%).

Significantly more voters regard Obama as inspiring (66%) than say this about either Clinton (50%) or McCain (38%), though the number of Democrats who say Obama is inspiring declined by seven percentage points since March.

Obama’s image within his own party is generally more positive among more affluent and better educated Democrats, a pattern reflected in exit polling in most of the primaries this year. The decline in Obama’s image since last month has also been greater among lower income and less educated white Democrats than among black Democrats, and more affluent and educated whites.

The belief that Obama is down-to-earth fell more among Democrats – 11 percentage points – than did other personal traits. The decline was 19 points among Democratic voters with household incomes under $50,000; among those with incomes of $50,000 and higher, the decline was 10 points. Similarly, the number of less affluent white Democrats who say Obama is inspiring fell 16 points, while there was no change in this perception among those with higher incomes. This pattern of change is apparent on several other traits, and is also seen in comparisons of college educated and non-college whites.

Obama’s Image – No Longer Glowing

Beyond the small increase in negative opinion about Obama, the survey found that fewer voters are now using highly complimentary terms to describe their
impressions of him, and his relative lack of political experience remains the single most commonly mentioned characteristic. Asked what one word best describes their impression of Obama, far more voters mentioned “inexperienced” than any other trait, as was the case in February. Inexperience topped the list even among people with a favorable opinion of him.

The most notable change since February is the decline in the number of people mentioning his charisma and intelligence, which in February were the most common words used after inexperience. Those terms are still used but by fewer people than two months ago. Now the second most common word is the more generic “good.” “Change” is still a common word used to describe him, and several people mentioned other positive qualities such as “honest,” “inspirational,” “new,” and “energetic.” Other frequent mentions included “liberal,” “different,” “scary,” and “unknown.”

Hillary Clinton’s image with voters is similar to what it was in February, though her persistence on the campaign trail is now reflected in some of the impressions voters mention about her. “Determined” and “strong” were commonly heard, as they were in February, but now they have been joined by “aggressive,” “ambitious” and “tenacious.”

“Experienced” remains the most common word used to describe Clinton, but fewer voters in April than in February used this word. Two negative terms followed experience in the list: “liar” and “untrustworthy”; “dishonest” was also mentioned by several voters. “Smart” and “intelligent” also were common, as they were in February.

Voter impressions of John McCain have changed very little over the course of the campaign. The top six words mentioned remained unchanged – and in the same order of frequency – from February to April. “Old” remains the most common word, followed by “honest,” “experienced,” “patriot,” “conservative,” and “hero.” Mentions of “Republican” were more common this month, and “liberal” no longer appeared among the most common impressions of voters.