Poll shows shifts in race for president

Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is introduced Sunday at a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Mich.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 14, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 14, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON - Republican voters have sharply altered their views of the party's presidential candidates after the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once widely written off, now viewed more favorably than any of his major competitors, according to the latest nationwide New York Times/CBS News Poll.

The findings underscored the extraordinary volatility in the Republican race and suggested that the party was continuing to search for a nominee whom it could rally around. Nearly three quarters of Republican primary voters said it was still too early for them to make up their minds "for sure,'' meaning that they could shift their allegiances yet again if one or more of McCain's rivals breaks through in the two Republican primaries this week, in Michigan and South Carolina.

On the Democratic side, the victory in Iowa of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has improved his standing within the party on a critical measure: his electability. The percentage of Democrats who say he would be the strongest candidate against the Republicans has more than doubled in a month, to 35 percent from 14 percent in December.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who won her party's primary in New Hampshire, still has an edge on electability, a substantial advantage on experience - the central selling point of her campaign - and leads among Democrats nationally. But Clinton and Obama are now viewed by Democrats as almost equally qualified on a variety of measures, including the ability to serve as commander in chief.

Americans' priorities are also in flux early into the primary season. The survey found voters to be in their darkest mood about the economy in 18 years, by some measures; 62 percent said they believed that the economy was getting worse..

Worries about the economy now dominate the voters' agenda, even more so than the war in Iraq, which framed the early part of this campaign. While change has emerged as an abstract rallying cry in the campaign debate, what the voters mean when they talk about change is clear - new approaches to the economy and the war, according to the poll.

The poll's findings are based on a national telephone survey conducted Jan. 9-12 with 1,061 registered voters; it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Thirty-three percent of Republican primary voters in the poll named McCain, of Arizona, as their choice, up from 7 percent a month ago.

Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, whose favorability ratings jumped after he won in Iowa, was the choice of 18 percent of Republican primary voters. Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, who is focusing his campaign on later contests, had the most precipitous fall; he was the choice of 10 percent of Republican voters, down from 22 percent last month. Support for Mitt Romney of Massachussetts had fallen to 8 percent and support for other candidates was also in single digits.

The poll also had other worrisome signs for Romney, who finished second in both Iowa and New Hampshire and is in a tough three-way battle in Michigan against McCain and Huckabee. Not only did support for him among Republican voters plummet over the past month, but he was also viewed much less favorably than a month ago.

McCain, a longtime maverick in his own party, was named by Republican primary voters in the survey as the candidate most likely to win his party's nomination. Thirty-nine percent of these primary voters saw McCain as the likely nominee. Only 11 percent saw Giuliani prevailing.

McCain's image ratings also have soared. More than half of the Republican primary voters (57 percent) viewed him favorably in the new poll, compared with 37 percent in December.

The poll showed a more stable Democratic race. Among Democratic primary voters nationally, Clinton remains the favorite of 42 percent, compared with 27 percent backing Obama, of Illinois - essentially unchanged since December. John Edwards of North Carolina remains in third place at 11 percent.

But there were auspicious signs for Obama as the contest moves to the South, where blacks account for a large share of the Democratic primary electorate.

About half of black Democratic primary voters - 49 percent - said they planned to vote for Obama, while 34 percent said they backed Clinton.

Among white Democratic primary voters, 42 percent said they were supporting Clinton, while 24 percent said they backed Obama.

On the question of whether the country was ready for a black president, black voters were more skeptical than whites; 47 percent of blacks said the country was prepared to send a black person to the White House, while 56 percent of whites said they felt that way.

A majority of whites and blacks, and men and women, considered the country ready for a woman president.

The survey showed that Democratic voters see Obama and Clinton as evenly matched on several leadership qualities, despite the efforts of both camps to draw distinctions. Virtually the same percentages of Democrats said Clinton and Obama could unify the country and bring about "real change.'' Both were given high marks as potential commanders in chief.

But Clinton has a strong edge on her readiness to be president. Nearly eight in 10 Democratic primary voters said she had prepared herself well enough for the job and for issues she might face. Only 40 percent said Obama had, and 53 percent said he needed a few more years to prepare.

Many Democrats said Clinton was not getting equal treatment from the news media. Fifty-one percent of Democratic primary voters said the news media had been harder on Clinton than on other candidates; 12 percent said the media had been harder on Obama. Women were particularly likely to feel that she had been unfairly treated, while men were evenly divided.

Still, there are signs of resistance to another Clinton administration. Thirty-eight percent said they thought it was bad for two families - the Bushes and the Clintons - to hold the presidency for so long.

Overall, Democrats appeared to be more intense than Republicans as the election year begins. Fifty-eight percent of the Democrats said they were more enthusiastic than usual about voting this year, compared with 32 percent of the Republicans.

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