September 18, 2008

McCain Gains On Issues, But Stalls As Candidate Of Change

Section 2: Candidate Traits

Both McCain and Obama continue to be well regarded by voters on a number of personal traits. As was the case in April, majorities view both candidates as patriotic, honest and down-to-earth. However, there are major differences in how voters view each candidate.

Far more regard McCain as patriotic (91%) than say this about Obama (65%). There is very little partisan division over McCain’s patriotism – 83% of Democrats feel the term applies to McCain, as do 93% of independents and 98% of Republicans. When it comes to Obama’s patriotism, the gap is far wider. While 86% of Democrats and 64% of independents say Obama is patriotic, just 42% of Republicans agree.

McCain holds a similarly large advantage when it comes to being seen as well-qualified – 75% of voters say this term applies to McCain, 47% to Obama. Of all traits included in the survey, partisan divisions are greatest when it comes to views of Obama’s qualifications – 76% of Democrats say he is well-qualified compared with 16% of Republicans. Among independent voters, nearly twice as many see McCain as well-qualified than Obama (80% vs. 41%).

Obama’s big personal advantage is in the widespread belief that he is inspiring. Overall, 71% of voters regard Obama as inspiring. By comparison, just 43% of voters say McCain is inspiring. Even among Republicans, nearly half (49%) describe Obama as inspiring.

Overall, while Obama is clearly seen as the less well-qualified candidate, the term risky is applied nearly as often to John McCain (46%) as it is to Barack Obama (51%). But when it comes to independent voters, McCain has a clear edge. More independents view Obama as risky than say this about McCain (55% vs. 44%).

Large majorities describe McCain (62%) and Obama (64%) as honest. Obama has a slim edge when it comes to being seen as down-to-earth (65% vs. 56% for McCain). There are substantial partisan differences in voters’ views on these traits, but independents are about as likely to view McCain as honest and down-to-earth as to say these traits apply to Obama.

McCain and Obama are each seen as “arrogant” by roughly the same number of voters overall (33% and 37%, respectively), but the gap is larger among independents (31% McCain, 42% Obama). Relatively few voters rate the candidates as “phony” (27% McCain, 29% Obama).

Candidates in a Word

Asked what one word best describes their impression of Barack Obama, far more voters mentioned “inexperienced” than any other word. Inexperienced has consistently been the word most associated with Obama, appearing atop the list in both April and February of this year as well. Not surprisingly, “change” is the second most frequently mentioned word and has become increasingly associated with Obama since April. Other positive words people use to describe Obama are “intelligent,” “young,” “charismatic,” “new,” “energetic” and “hope” or “hopeful.” Aside from inexperienced,” some of the more frequently used negative words are “scary,” “unqualified” and “liar.”

As with Obama’s top word, there has been no change at the top of the list for McCain over the course of the campaign. The single word most commonly used to describe John McCain continues to be “old.” Many also refer to McCain as a “patriot” or “patriotic,” and other positive words include “experienced,” “honest,” and “hero.”

One substantial change in descriptions of McCain is in the number associating McCain with George Bush. In the current survey, the third most common word that came to mind among voters asked to think about McCain was related to the current president. Mentions of Bush were relatively infrequent in earlier surveys conducted in April and February.

McCain’s Age

Fewer than a quarter of voters (23%) believe that McCain is too old to be president, which is little changed from June (21%) and February (26%) of this year. More than a third of Democratic voters (36%) say that McCain is too old to be president, compared with 21% of independents and just 11% of Republicans.

There are no major age differences in opinions about whether McCain is too old to be president. In February, older voters were somewhat more likely than younger voters to view McCain as too old to be president, but those differences were not evident in June or in the current survey.

Obama’s Religious Beliefs

A small but consistent minority of voters (13%) continue to say that Obama is a Muslim. This percentage is largely unchanged from June (12%) and March (10%), when the controversy over Obama’s former pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ was fresh in many people’s minds.

In the current survey, 54% identify Obama as a Christian, while 16% say they do not know Obama’s religion because they have heard different things about it. Another 11% don’t know because they have not heard enough about Obama’s religion.

Nearly one-in-five McCain supporters (19%) say that Obama is a Muslim, up from 14% in March. Fewer than one-in-ten Obama supporters (7%) identify him as a Muslim.

More than three times as many white voters than African Americans see Obama as a Muslim (14% vs. 4%). Among white voters, 17% of those who have not completed college say Obama is a Muslim and 45% say he is a Christian. Among white college graduates, 7% say Obama is a Muslim while 69% say he is a Christian.

Views of Candidates’ Wives

Voters’ opinions of Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain have improved considerably since May. Currently, a majority of voters express favorable opinions of both Michelle Obama (56%) and Cindy McCain (52%), up from 44% and 42%, respectively, in May.

Compared with just a few months ago, Michelle Obama is now viewed much more positively among Democratic (79% vs. 65%) and independent (54% vs. 39%) voters. Republicans also have more positive views of Barack Obama’s wife than they did in May, but they continue to express more unfavorable than favorable views. A third of Republicans view Michelle Obama favorably and 45% view her unfavorably; in May, about a quarter (24%) said they had a positive view of Mrs. Obama and 39% had a negative view.

Cindy McCain’s image has improved considerably among Republican and independent voters. More than three-quarters of Republicans (76%) now have a positive opinion of John McCain’s wife, up 20 points since May. The proportion of independent voters who express a positive opinion of Cindy McCain has risen from 40% in May to 55% currently.

But Democrats express much more negative views of Mrs. McCain than they did a few months ago. Fully 46% of Democratic voters say they have a negative opinion of Cindy McCain; in May, just 26% expressed an unfavorable opinion. Mrs. McCain is now viewed favorably by 30% of Democrats, down from 37% in May.