McCain Now Clearly GOP’s Front-Runner After Primary Wins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 3, 2008; Page A01
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) are running roughly even nationally as the battle for the Democratic nomination heads into Tuesday’s big round of primaries and caucuses, while Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has jumped to a dominating lead over his remaining rivals in the Republican race, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Two days before voters in 24 states go to their polling places, 47 percent of likely Democratic voters said they back Clinton and 43 percent said they support Obama, with neither candidate decisively benefiting from the departure of former senator John Edwards (N.C.) from the race. By contrast, McCain’s wins in primaries in South Carolina and Florida and the winnowing of the Republican field have had a dramatic result: The senator from Arizona is now the clear front-runner for his party’s nomination.
McCain leads former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney 48 percent to 24 percent among probable GOP voters as he continues to rapidly consolidate support, particularly among moderates and liberals. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee runs third in the new poll with 16 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) is fourth at 7 percent.
The Democratic and Republican hopefuls have been furiously crisscrossing the country seeking out votes in advance of Super Tuesday. More primaries and caucuses are being held on Feb. 5 than on any previous single day in a nominating contest; about half the delegates needed to secure each party’s nomination are at stake.
McCain’s big lead in this new national poll matches a wave of increasing support seen in state polls, which, coupled with the GOP’s winner-take-all rules, gives him the opportunity to effectively wrap up the nomination with a strong showing Tuesday.
The Democratic contest is likely to keep going.
Democratic delegates are doled out based on complex formulas, with candidates picking up backers based on their performance within states and within congressional districts. The new poll underscores how competitive the race continues to be since Clinton and Obama split the first four sanctioned contests of the year. Clinton’s four-percentage-point edge in the survey is about the same as it was three weeks ago and does not constitute a significant lead, given the poll’s margin of sampling error.
The basic fault line between Clinton and Obama remains leadership and experience versus a new direction and new ideas. And since Edwards’s exit on Wednesday, both candidates have worked relentlessly to remind voters of their apparent strengths. Three-quarters of voters who prioritize a solid r¿sum¿ said they back Clinton; 70 percent of those seeking a change-oriented candidate said they support Obama.
While Clinton has the edge on the issues voters say are most important to them, and enjoys a wide lead on the question of who is a stronger leader, Obama now holds a seven-percentage-point advantage as the candidate who would do the most to bring needed change to Washington.
And Clinton’s once-sizable lead as the Democrat with the best shot at winning the White House has shrunk significantly; in the new poll, 47 percent said she is the most electable, while 42 percent said Obama has the better chance. In hypothetical general-election matchups, both Democrats run neck and neck with McCain, and both lead Romney by double digits.
McCain outperforms Romney in the general-election tests because he picks up significantly more support among independents and political moderates. These groups have been crucial to the senator in early-state caucuses and primaries, and his biggest gains in this poll came among them.
Among GOP voters who are politically moderate and liberal, McCain has a whopping 51-point advantage over Romney in the new poll, while conservatives divide 37 percent for McCain, 29 percent for Romney and 19 percent for Huckabee. Moreover, most of McCain’s improvement since mid-January is among moderates and liberals; he is up 28 percentage points in this group, while he and Romney have both climbed 12 points among conservatives.
McCain has taken control of the GOP race by picking up mainline Republican supporters as well. Nearly half of self-identified Republicans now support him, up nearly fourfold from December. He appears to have benefited from the decisions by former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) to quit the race. Both Giuliani, who has endorsed McCain, and Thompson appealed to many of the voters McCain now counts in his camp.
Two-thirds of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents saw McCain as the party’s strongest general-election candidate, and about three in five described him as the strongest leader. He also now has a double-digit advantage over Romney on the question of who best represents the core values of the party. On this measure, he is up 14 points from three weeks ago.
While moderates and liberals have coalesced around McCain as the GOP standard-bearer (56 percent said he best reflects party values), conservatives are less than fully convinced. Among those who describe themselves as “very conservative,” 34 percent said Romney best embodies GOP values, and 25 percent said McCain.
McCain also leads on all five issue areas tested in the poll, with overwhelming advantages on national security issues (69 percent call him tops on Iraq; 67 percent on terrorism). He has double-digit advantages over Romney on the economy and immigration, and leads both Romney and Huckabee on social issues. About four in 10 Romney supporters said McCain is better on Iraq and terrorism.
For all his advantages, however, McCain does not enjoy the kind of enthusiastic support that Clinton and Obama have among their voters. Thirty-eight percent of his backers said they strongly support him. And among those Republicans who are most closely following the GOP race, he and Romney are running essentially even.
On the Democratic side, Clinton’s supporters are more enthusiastic than Obama’s, with three in five of hers saying they strongly support her candidacy, compared with roughly half of his who said they back him strongly.
In addition to the experience-versus-change dynamic, gender and racial differences continue to define the Democratic contest. Women support Clinton over Obama by a 15-point margin (53 to 38 percent), while men back Obama by a 10-point margin (50 to 40 percent).
Among white Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, Clinton is favored 52 percent to 38 percent, while Obama leads among black voters 62 percent to 30 percent. White men are evenly divided between Clinton and Obama, though white women back Clinton by more than 20 percentage points.
As he did in early-state voting, Obama continues to hold an advantage among independents nationally. He also does better among liberals, particularly among those who said they are “very liberal,” than among moderates or conservatives. Clinton still leads among those with family incomes of under $50,000 and those without college degrees. Obama has a better than 2 to 1 advantage among those with post-graduate degrees.
Democrats continue to give Clinton higher marks on key issues. She holds big leads over Obama on health care and the economy and a narrower edge on Iraq. The two run about evenly on immigration.
But it is the economy that has become a defining issue of the campaign on both sides. Twice as many people now called it tops as said so about Iraq, and no other issue reached double digits. About four in 10 Democrats, Republicans and independents called the economy and jobs the election’s single most important concern.
The poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, among a random national sample of 1,249 adults. The sample of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points; the margin of error is five points among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.