October 21, 2008

Growing Doubts About McCain’s Judgment, Age and Campaign Conduct

Section 3: Issues and Priorities

Obama Improves on Key Issues

Barack Obama has improved his standing at least slightly since mid-September over John McCain on virtually every domestic and foreign policy issue. When voters were asked which candidate would do the best job handling various concerns, Obama boosted his advantage on domestic issues and cut into McCain’s lead elsewhere. For the first time, Obama leads by a significant margin as to who would do the best job making wise decisions about Iraq.

Close to half of voters (48%) say Obama would do the best job on Iraq, compared with 42% who choose McCain. McCain still performs relatively well on other foreign policy issues. Nearly half (49%) say he would do the best job defending the country from a terrorist attack, compared with 38% who choose Obama. But the difference between the two has shrunk from 25 points in mid-September to 11 points today.

On the question of who would make wise decisions about foreign policy, voters are split: 45% choose McCain and 44% choose Obama. But again, Obama has cut into McCain’s advantage considerably. Last month, 51% chose McCain and 40% chose Obama.

On most domestic issues, Obama enjoys wide leads over McCain. Voters see Obama as the candidate best able to deal with the current economic crisis, 46%-34%. Obama leads 53% to 32% when voters are asked which would do the best job improving the economy more generally. Voters favor Obama on energy issues 53% to 34%. On handling education, the environment and the health care system, Obama holds advantages of more than 25 points over McCain.

Half of voters say Obama would do a better job dealing with taxes and reducing the budget deficit, while about a third say McCain would do the better job (35% and 30%, respectively). Obama also holds a nine-point advantage over McCain on the question of who would best limit the influence of lobbyists, up from a four-point edge in mid-September.

The candidates run about even on the issues of immigration and Supreme Court appointments. Some 42% of voters say Obama would do the best job of dealing with immigration, compared with 38% who choose McCain. On the question of who would do the best job selecting Supreme Court justices, 46% say Obama while 41% say McCain.

Swing Voters’ Attitudes

McCain holds an edge over Obama on several issues among swing voters — those who have not yet decided how they will vote. This is especially so when it comes to foreign policy. However, large numbers of swing voters express no opinion about which candidate is most capable to deal with the important issues of the day.

Fully 58% say McCain would do the best job of defending the country from terrorist attacks, compared with only 16% who choose O
bama. McCain also holds solid leads among swing voters when they are asked which candidate would better handle Iraq and foreign policy in general. Beyond foreign policy, swing voters also see McCain as the candidate who can do the best job selecting Supreme Court justices (43% to 26%).

Despite improved standing on some issues, McCain does not do much better among swing voters than among the electorate at large on many domestic concerns. Obama maintains at least a double-digit lead over McCain in improving the economy, dealing with the environment, improving the health care system, improving education, reducing the budget deficit, and in dealing with energy problems and taxes.

Voters’ Issue Priorities

The issue priorities of voters are largely unchanged from August. The economy continues to top the list of voter concerns – about nine-in-ten (91%) say the economy will be very important to their vote choice, far more than rate any other issue as very important – while abortion (41%) and gay marriage (28%) remain at the bottom of the list. Iraq is seen as very important by 71% of voters, virtually unchanged from August (72%), while about the same proportion says terrorism will be very important to their candidate selection (69% vs. 72% in August).

Compared to four years ago, however, voters have considerably different views about what is important to their vote. Three issues on which Barack Obama now leads John McCain by double-digit margins – the economy, energy, and taxes – are much more important to voters in this election than they were in October 2004. Most notably, nearly eight-in-ten voters (78%) now cite energy as very important, a 24-point increase from October 2004 (54%). The percentage of voters who say the economy and taxes will be very important as they decide how to vote in November also has increased by significant margins since the fall of 2004.

On the other hand, terrorism, McCain’s strongest issue, has dropped in importance; 69% say terrorism will be very important to their vote choice, compared with 77% who said the same in October 2004. The share of voters who see Iraq as very important remains largely unchanged (71% now vs. 74%), but the war is now much less important relative to the economy and jobs.

As was the case in the fall of 2004, few voters view gay marriage as very important to their vote choice; 28% now say it is a very important issue, compared with 32% four years ago. About four-in-ten voters (42%) consider abortion a very important issue, a five-point drop from this point in the 2004 campaign (47%).

Conflicting Voter Concerns

The priorities of committed McCain supporters differ substantially from committed Obama voters. While supporters of both candidates put the economy at the top of the list of issues they consider very important to their vote choice, McCain supporters are much more likely than Obama supporters to cite taxes (81% vs. 63%) and terrorism (79% vs. 59%) as very important. On the other hand, far more certain Obama supporters than certain McCain supporters say health care (88% vs. 60%), education (82% vs. 59%), and the environment (69% vs. 36%) are very important.

In October 2004, certain Bush supporters and certain Kerry supporters also had different priorities. Terrorism topped the list among Bush voters (88% said it was very important, compared with 70% of Kerry voters), while jobs and health care were the most important issues for Kerry supporters (87% each vs. 64% and 57%, respectively, among Bush supporters).

The priorities of swing voters are generally closer to those of committed Obama supporters than to committed McCain supporters. In addition to the economy, jobs (85%), health care (79%) and education (79%) top the list of issues swing voters consider very important to their vote choice; the same issues top the list among Obama supporters. Six-in-ten swing voters also say the environment is very important, which is somewhat less than the percentage of committed Obama voters rating the environment as very important (69%), but far greater than the percentage of committed McCain voters saying this (36%). And swing voters, like committed Obama supporters, rate the issue of gay marriage as far less important than do committed McCain voters (20% of swing voters, 22% of certain Obama voters, 41% of certain McCain supporters).

Issue Priorities and the Gender Gap

Women are far more likely than men to rate many issues as very important to their vote choice. The gender gap is largest on abortion; about half of women voters (49%) say abortion is very important to their vote, compared to just a third of men. The differences also are large over other domestic issues, including health care (10 points), education (11 points), jobs (8 points), and the environment (8 points).

The gender gap on issue priorities reaches beyond domestic concerns. Nearly eight-in-ten women (79%) say Iraq is very important, compared to 63% of men. And women are also more concerned about terrorism (72% vs. 64% of men). Women and men are about as likely to rate energy, trade policy, immigration, and gay marriage as very important.

There is little evidence of an age gap in the importance assigned to various issues. The economy tops the list among all age groups, and younger and older voters do not offer significantly different ratings of most issues, including health care, education, and gay marriage. Younger and older voters differ on the environment, energy, and trade policy, however. Voters younger than 30 are considerably more likely than older voters to say the environment will be very important to their vote, while older voters place more importance than young voters on energy and trade policy.

Voters’ Views on Issues

Voters who have opposing issue positions often have substantially different views regarding the importance of those issues. For example, among voters who favor government-guaranteed health care, even if it means higher taxes – 58% of voters – nearly nine-in-ten (88%) say the issue will be very important to their vote. Among those who oppose government-backed health insurance (35% of voters), just 58% view the issue as very important.

Overall, voters are divided over gay marriage – 41% say gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry legally and 46% say they should not. In this case, voters who oppose gay marriage are more than twice as likely as those who favor gay marriage to say the issue is very important (41% vs. 19%).

A 59% majority of voters say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but just 34% of this group rates abortion as a very important issue to their vote choice. On the other hand, among the 35% who say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, nearly six-in-ten (59%) say the issue is very important.

Voters are largely in favor of providing illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines, and have jobs (66% favor it and 30% oppose it); those who oppose this proposal place much greater priority on immigration. About two-thirds of those who oppose a path to citizenship say immigration will be very important to their vote (66%), compared with just 41% of those who favor it.

More than seven-in-ten voters (71%) favor allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters, while 24% oppose increased drilling; large majorities of the proponents of both positions say the issue will be very important to their vote (77% vs. 79%). And
while voters are divided over whether the United States should keep troops in Iraq (49%) or bring troops home as soon as possible (47%), about the same proportion of each side of the question sees it as very important.

Swing Voters’ Positions on Key Issues

Six-in-ten swing voters say abortion should be legal in all or most cases (60%) and the same number favors government-guaranteed health insurance and providing illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship. On these three issues, the views of swing voters are more closely aligned with those of committed Obama supporters.

When it comes to offshore drilling, however, swing voters offer more conservative views; three-quarters favor drilling in U.S. waters and just 15% oppose. Certain McCain voters are nearly unanimous in their support for offshore drilling (92% favor it), while certain Obama voters are more divided – 52% favor and 41% oppose drilling in U.S. waters.

Swing voters offer mixed views on gay marriage, President Bush’s tax cuts, and whether the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq or bring troops home as soon as possible. Committed McCain and Obama supporters, on the other hand, offer clear views on these issues. For example, nearly three-quarters of Obama voters favor bringing U.S. troops home (73%), while 84% of McCain supporters say the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq.