July 10, 2008

Likely Rise in Voter Turnout Bodes Well for Democrats

Section 4: Views of the Candidates and the Issues

Voters have starkly different impressions of the two candidates, and these are reflected in evaluations of their personal qualities. Fully 74% say the phrase “has new ideas” better describes Obama, while just 12% say it better describes McCain.

Obama’s advantage in personal likability is nearly as large: more than three times as many voters see Obama, rather than McCain, as personally likable (64% vs. 18%). Obama also holds better than a two-to-one advantage as the candidate who “connects well with ordinary Americans” (58% vs. 26% for McCain).

Half of voters see McCain as “a typical politician,” compared with 30% who say that phrase better describes Obama. Obama holds smaller, six-point leads as the candidate who “shares my values” and “can get things done.”

McCain’s greatest advantage is on being perceived as “personally qualified to be president;” by approximately two-to-one (55% to 27%), more voters say this phrase better describes McCain than Obama. In addition, 47% say the phrase “would use good judgment in a crisis” better describes McCain, compared with 38% who say it better fits Obama.

McCain holds a slight edge in opinions about which candidate is “willing to take a stand, even if it’s unpopular” (44% vs. 41% for Obama). There is virtually no difference in voters’ perceptions of which candidate is more honest: 37% say the phrase “honest and truthful” better describes McCain, while 36% say it better describes Obama.

Perceptions of the candidates’ honesty were similar at about this point in the 2004 campaign, with 36% saying that John Kerry was honest and truthful and 34% saying that phrase better described George Bush. In May 2004, comparable percentages also viewed both Bush and Kerry as personally likable (42% Bush vs. 39% Kerry).

At that time, Bush held a wide lead as the candidate willing to take a stand even if unpopular (by 65% to 23%). He also held about the same lead as McCain does currently as the candidate who “would use good judgment in a crisis” (47% to 35%).

In June 2000, somewhat more voters said Bush had new ideas than said that about Al Gore (by 38% to 32%). Bush led Gore by 14 points as the candidate described as willing to take an unpopular stand, but for the most part voters viewed Bush and Gore in similar ways.

Supporters’ Views of the Candidates

Supporters of McCain and Obama generally believe that positive phrases better describe their candidate rather than his opponent. Virtually all of McCain’s supporters view him as more personally qualified than Obama and better in a crisis, while large majorities also see him as more honest, more willing to take a stand, and better able to get things done.

But there are some notable exceptions to this pattern. A solid majority of McCain supporters (58%) say the phrase “has new ideas” better describes Obama than McCain. By 45% to 34%, more McCain supporters view Obama as personally likable than say that about the Arizona Republican. And a sizable minority (32%) says the negative descriptor “a typical politician” better describes McCain, though somewhat more (43%) say it describes Obama.

Perceptions of Obama among his supporters are more uniformly positive. However, a smaller majority of Obama supporters views him as more personally qualified to be president than say that other positive phrases describe him; 55% say Obama is more personally qualified to be president, 28% choose McCain, and 10% say both candidates are qualified to do the job.

Obama is viewed much more critically by Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters who say they supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. More than four-in-ten (43%) say McCain is more personally qualified to be president, compared with 35% who say that phrase better describes Obama.

In addition, fewer than half of former Clinton supporters (44%) view Obama as more honest and truthful. Just 24% say that McCain is more honest and truthful, but a relatively large minority (20%) says neither candidate particularly embodies this attribute. Modest majorities of former Clinton supporters say that Obama would be more likely to use good judgment in a crisis (55%); is more willing to take a stand, even if unpopular (53%); and is better able to get things done (52%).

Issues Key for Obama

When asked what they like most about Obama, more than half of his supporters (55%) cite his stand on issues, while far fewer point to his leadership (22%), personality (11%), and experience (3%).

Issues were also the main strength for Kerry and Gore among their supporters. But far more mentioned those candidates’ experience as what they liked most about them than say that about Obama. Roughly three-in-ten Gore’s supporters (29%) pointed to his experience in June 2000, as did 16% of Kerry’s backers four years later.

Experience is a far greater strength for McCain that it was for Bush during his campaigns. Nearly half of McCain’s supporters (47%) say his experience if what they most like about him; just 11% cited Bush’s experience in June 2000, while 4% cited his experience in 2004.

By contrast, issues are much less of a positive factor for McCain’s supporters than they were for Bush’s. Fewer than a quarter of McCain’s supporters (23%) cite his stance on issues as what they like most. In June 2004, 49% cited Bush’s stance on issues, and during his first run for the White House, issues were an even bigger factor for Bush (50%).

Candidate Weaknesses

Voters who do not support a candidate typically cite their stance on issues as what they like least about them. Pluralities of those who did not support Bush cited his stance on issues both in 2000 and 2004; similarly, those who did not support Bush’s Democratic rivals pointed to issues as what they liked least about them.

Obama is an exception in this regard. About as many voters who do not support him cite his experience as his stance on issues as to what they like least about him (40% experience, 38% stand on issues).

McCain’s stand on issues is by far the biggest negative cited by voters who do not support him. About two-thirds (66%) say McCain’s stand on issues is what they like least about him, far more than the proportion saying that about any recent candidate, Democrat or Republican.

Energy Rivals Iraq as Campaign Issue

The economy continues to overshadow other issues in the minds of voters. However, a growin
g number cites energy as the issue they most want to hear the candidates discuss. The proportion of voters naming energy, gas or a related issue has more than doubled since April – from 7% to 17%. Last November, just 2% volunteered energy as the issue they most wanted the candidates to address.

About as many voters now mention energy as a top issue as cite the war in Iraq (19%) as the one issue they most want the candidates to discuss. The proportion of voters citing the war as the single issue they want the candidates to address has fallen from 32% last November to 19% in the current survey.

Health care also has lost ground as an issue among voters. Just 9% point to health care as the single issue they want the candidates to discuss, less than half the percentage that cited it last November (22%).

Iraq Less Important to Republicans

Fully twice as many Republican voters cite energy as the issue they want the candidates to talk about than cite Iraq (20% vs. 10%). That represents a dramatic shift since April, when 19% mentioned Iraq and just 9% said they wanted to hear about energy.

Energy is an increasingly important issue among Democrats as well; nonetheless, far more Democratic voters point to the war in Iraq as the single issue they want the candidates to discuss than cite energy (26% vs. 14%). However, energy has supplanted health care as the third-rated issue among Democrats. In April, 18% of Democrats mentioned health care, while 6% cited energy and gas; currently, slightly more want the candidates to discuss energy than health care (14% vs. 11%).

Obama Still Leads on Economy

Opinions about whether Obama or McCain could do a better job on most issues have changed only modestly over the past few months. Obama continues to hold a wide lead as the candidate better able to improve economic conditions (51% vs. 31% for McCain). That is comparable to Obama’s advantage in May and April.

Obama has gained as the candidate better able to deal with taxes. He currently leads 47% to 36% on this issue; in late May, slightly more voters preferred McCain on taxes than Obama (44% to 39%).

McCain continues to lead by a wide margin as the candidate better able to defend the country from a terrorist attack. A majority (55%) says he would do the better job on terrorism, compared with 31% who chose Obama. McCain also leads by a much narrower margin as the candidate better able to make wise decisions on Iraq (47% to 41%).

Obama’s strength on domestic issues – and his relative weakness on foreign policy and national security issues – is reflected in the opinions of former Clinton supporters regarding which candidate could better handle major issues. By wide margins, former Clinton supporters say Obama is better able than McCain to handle taxes, the economy and reducing the influence of lobbyists.

Notably, as many former Clinton supporters say McCain could do better in dealing with terrorism as choose Obama (40% each). A majority of former Clinton supporters (55%) say Obama would do better in making wise decisions about Iraq, but nearly three-in-ten (28%) say McCain would do better. Republican and Republican-leaning voters who supported another GOP candidate in the primaries have about the same views on the candidates and the issues as do those who favored McCain for the nomination.

McCain and Bush’s Policies

Voters continue to be divided about whether McCain would take the country in a new direction or rather would pursue the policies of the Bush administration. Currently, 46% say McCain, if elected, would continue Bush’s policies while 42% say he would take the country in a different direction. These opinions have changed little since March.

By more than three-to-one (65% to 19%), Republicans say that McCain will move the country in a different direction if he is elected. Democrats by a slightly greater margin (71% to 22%) say McCain will largely follow Bush’s policies. As was the case in May, a modest plurality of independents (46%) say that McCain will take the country in a new direction, compared with 40% who believe he will pursue Bush’s policies.