May 29, 2008

McCain’s Negatives Mostly Political, Obama’s More Personal

Section 2: Views of National Conditions and Campaign Issues

Just 18% of Americans say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country today, down from 22% in March and 27% at the end of 2007. This represents a new low in 20 years of Pew Research Center polling. Previously, the lowest measure of satisfaction was in September 1993 when 20% of Americans were satisfied with the state of the nation.

The percent dissatisfied has risen from 66% in December to 76% today, also a record high. Dissatisfaction is up four points from March and 10 points since December.

Members of the president’s party tend to offer higher assessments of the state of the nation than members of the opposite party. Throughout Bill Clinton’s eight-year tenure, Democrats expressed more satisfaction with the state of the nation than did Republicans. Throughout George W. Bush’s seven-plus years, Republicans have been more satisfied than Democrats. The partisan gap in satisfaction has been particularly large since late 2002, when Democratic satisfaction plummeted while Republicans remained more positive.

However, over the past few months Republican views on the state of the nation have turned more negative. In January 2007, 58% of Republicans were satisfied with the way things were going. This fell to 47% in December 2007 and 40% in March. Currently, just 29% of Republicans are satisfied with the state of the nation, an eleven-point drop in just two months, and half the proportion expressing satisfaction in January 2007. The decline in satisfaction among Democrats has been less steep, mostly because opinions of national conditions were already so negative. In January 2007, just 16% of Democrats were satisfied with the state of the nation; half as many (8%) say the same today.

Domestic Concerns Take Priority

Fully 61% of voters say it is more important for the next president to focus on domestic policy, while just 22% say the next president should focus on foreign policy. This view is broadly shared by voters across the political spectrum. And solid majorities of both Obama supporters (66%) and McCain supporters (57%) say it is more important for the next president to focus on domestic issues.

The voters’ belief that the next president should focus on domestic policy is consistent with opinions about President Bush’s priorities. In January, 56% of the public said the president should focus on domestic issues while 31% said it was more important for him to focus on foreign policy. However, when the choice was presented as to whether it was more important for Bush to focus on domestic policy or the war on terrorism, the balance of opinion was much closer: 46% said the president should focus on domestic policy compared with 38% who said he should focus on the war on terrorism.

Issues: Energy Increasingly Important

The specific issues that voters view as very important have changed somewhat since the last presidential campaign. Most notably, energy has assumed much greater importance than it did in the fall of 2004. Currently, 77% say that the issue of energy will be very important in their vote. In October 2004, just 54% rated energy as a very important factor.

At that late stage in the 2004 campaign, the economy and terrorism led the list of voters’ concerns; 78% said the economy would be very important while 77% cited terrorism. In the current survey, the economy has increased in importance, and more voters say the economy will be very important in their voting decision (88%) than say that about any other issue. By contrast, just 68% say terrorism will be very important, a nine-point decline from 2004.

More voters also rank the federal budget deficit, Social Security, the environment and taxes as very important than did so in October 2004. Abortion is regarded as a less important issue; 40% of voters say abortion will be a very important factor in their vote, down from 47% in October 2004.

Voters’ opinions about the importance of the war in Iraq have not changed substantially since October 2004 – 72% rate Iraq as very important now, compared with 74% then. However, in the current survey, far more voters view the economy as a very important issue than say that about Iraq (88% vs. 72%). In October 2004, comparable proportions of voters viewed the economy and Iraq as very important (78% vs. 74%).

Partisan Priorities

There continue to be sizable differences in the importance that Republicans, Democrats and independents place on major issues. As was the case in October 2004, the largest single gap is in views about the importance of the environment: 76% of Democrats and 63% of independents say the environment will be a very important issue in their vote, compared with just 43% of Republicans.

Far more Republicans than Democrats continue to rate moral values (by 21 points), gay marriage (19 points), terrorism (19 points) and immigration (14 points) and abortion (14 points) as very important. Democrats give greater priority than Republicans to several domestic issues, including health care (by 20 points), the budget deficit (19 points), jobs (15 points) and energy (15 points).

However, partisan differences over the importance of some issues – the federal budget deficit, Social Security and health care – have narrowed since October 2004. Greater numbers of voters from both parties view the budget deficit as very important than did so nearly four years ago, but the shift among Republicans has been especially noteworthy. Currently, 61% of Republicans say the budget deficit will be very important to their vote, up from just 40% in October 2004. The proportion of Democrats rating the budget deficit as very important also has increased, but not as dramatically (from 69% to 80%). Consequently, the partisan gap over the importance of this issue has decrease
d, from 29 points in October 2004 to 19 points currently.

The proportion of Republicans saying Social Security is very important has increased from 56% in October 2004 to 72% currently. The shift among Democratic voters has been less pronounced – 80% say Social Security will be very important, up from 76% late in the 2004 campaign. The partisan gap in views about the importance of this issue has narrowed from 20 points in October 2004 to eight points currently. The pattern is similar regarding views of the importance of health care. Currently, 69% of Republicans say health care will be very important in their voting decision, up from 58% in October 2004; Democratic views have changed very little (89% very important vs. 88% in 2004).

Little Change on Gay Marriage

Gay marriage ranked lowest in importance among 16 issues in October 2004. It remains the lowest-rated issue in the current survey: overall, 28% say gay marriage will be very important to their vote, which is down slightly from October 2004 (32%).

White evangelical Protestants continue to place greater importance on gay marriage than do voters in other religious groups. However, half of white evangelical voters say gay marriage will be very important in their voting decision, which is virtually unchanged since October 2004 (49%).

Public attitudes regarding gay marriage have remained fairly stable in recent years. Currently, 49% oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, while 38% support gay marriage. In November 2007, there was somewhat greater opposition to gay marriage (54% oppose/36% favor). Views on civil unions for gay and lesbian couple also have not shown much change: currently, 51% say they favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into legal agreements that would give them many of the same rights as married couples, while 41% oppose such agreements.

Obama’s Issue Advantage

Obama holds sizable advantages over McCain as better able to handle the economy as well as the nation’s energy problems. Currently, half of voters say Obama could do a better job of improving the economy, while 36% favor McCain. Obama’s lead over McCain on the economy is about the same as it was in April (53% Obama vs. 33% McCain).

Obama holds comparable leads over McCain on dealing with nation’s energy problems (18 points) and improving the health care system (17 points). In addition, about half of voters (48%) say that Obama better reflects their views on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, while just 34% favor McCain.

Since April, McCain has lost much of his advantage in opinions about which candidate is better able to make wise decisions about what to do in Iraq. Currently, 46% favor McCain while nearly as many (43%) favor Obama. In April, McCain held a 50%-38% lead on handling Iraq. McCain also holds modest leads as the candidate better able to deal with taxes and immigration; on each of these issues, 44% favor McCain while 39% favor Obama.

The Candidates and Foreign Policy

As was the case in February, a sizable minority of voters (43%) say that Obama would be not tough enough in dealing with foreign policy and national security issues. As many voters say Obama would not be tough enough as say his approach would be about right (43%).

By contrast, a narrow majority (51%) says that McCain’s approach to international and security issues would be about right. Nearly a quarter (22%) say McCain would be too tough, while 16% express concern that he would not be tough enough. These opinions, like views of Obama’s approach to foreign policy, have changed little since February.

McCain and Bush: More of the Same or New Direction?

Voters are evenly divided over whether a McCain presidency would mean a continuation of Bush’s policies (44%) or a new direction for the country (45%). However, Republicans are increasingly convinced that McCain will chart a new course. By a margin of 69%-22%, Republicans say McCain represents a new direction rather than a continuation of the Bush era. This is a significant change from just two months ago when 53% of GOP voters said a McCain presidency would result in real change, and 36% said McCain would continue Bush’s policies.

Nearly half of independents (47%) say McCain will pursue a new set of policies while 40% say he will continue the policies of the Bush administration. In March, slightly more independents (52%) said McCain would take the country in a new direction. Most Democrats (66%) remain convinced that McCain would follow in Bush’s footsteps as president; only 27% of Democrats think he would govern differently than Bush.

Regardless of whether they believe McCain represents the status quo or change, the vast majority of voters want to see a break from the policies of the Bush administration. Roughly three-quarters either say a continuation of Bush’s policies would be a bad thing (37%) or that a new direction for the country would be a good thing (36%). Very few say that a continuation of Bush policies would be a good thing (4%) or a different direction would be a bad thing (4%).

Even among Republicans, more than half say McCain represents change and this is a good thing. Only 6% say McCain representing change is a bad thing. Similarly only 10% of GOP voters say McCain continuing Bush’s policies would be a good thing.

Among independents, a plurality (40%) say McCain will pursue a new direction and this is a good thing. The most prevalent view among Democrats is that McCain will continue Bush’s policies and this is a bad thing (64%).