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Voters Went With Experience

Times Staff Writer

John F. Kerry’s experience trounced Howard Dean’s call for change in a New Hampshire primary that underscored the breadth of the Massachusetts senator’s appeal and the potential potholes looming for his Democratic presidential campaign, a Times exit poll found.

As in last week’s Iowa caucuses, Kerry on Tuesday showed he could gain support from virtually every voting bloc in the party. The survey found that he beat Dean among most major groups: men and women, Democrats and independents, union and non-union households, and voters with and without college educations.

Kerry ran best among voters who put the highest priority on leadership and political experience. Dean defeated Kerry among voters who placed the highest priority on a candidate who would offer new ideas and bring about the greatest change.

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That contrast suggests that Kerry benefited in New Hampshire -- and is likely to continue benefiting -- from doubts about the temperament and judgment of Dean, the onetime frontrunner. Kerry also was boosted by a shift in voter focus from the war with Iraq toward domestic concerns.

But the findings also hint that Kerry has not found an agenda or message quite as attractive to voters as his resume. As the race moves beyond his New England backyard, that could leave him open to charges that he is not as committed to change as many Democratic voters would like.

In a Tuesday night interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Dean signaled his intention to focus on that when he said the race would become “a discussion of how much change we want in Washington.”

The big question for Dean is whether his second-place finish represents the first step on the road back into contention or just a temporary stay of execution. Few states with upcoming contests offer him as many advantages as did New Hampshire, where he still fell well short.

The Times Poll surveyed 2,847 voters in the Democratic primary as they left 58 New Hampshire precincts. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The night held little good news for Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. All three not only ran far behind the two leaders, but finished far behind them among every major group of voters, whether measured by gender, age, education or ideology, the survey found.

Dean’s failure to win the primary is ominous for his presidential hopes. New Hampshire has among the country’s greatest concentrations of highly educated, socially liberal voters, the group that had been most attracted to his candidacy.

More than 60 % of Tuesday’s voters held at least a four-year college degree; the share of college graduates casting ballots in South Carolina, Missouri and Oklahoma -- some of the key contests next Tuesday -- is likely to be much smaller.

Kerry ran well Tuesday among constituencies likely to be represented more heavily in those states: moderate and conservative voters, those without college educations, and seniors.

The same lunch-bucket issues that emerged as top concerns for voters in the Iowa caucuses loomed largest in voters’ minds in New Hampshire.

In Iowa, twice as many voters cited the economy and health care -- rather than the Iraq war -- as the issues that most affected their vote, according to the National Election Pool entrance survey.

In The Times’ New Hampshire poll, which allowed voters to select two top issues, the imbalance was more pronounced. Just over four in 10 cited the economy, and more than one-third cited health care. Only about one in seven cited Iraq, which also placed behind education, world affairs and balancing the federal budget.

In New Hampshire, Kerry won comfortably among voters who picked the economy as their top concern, while the two split those citing health care.

Voters who picked world affairs preferred Kerry by 16 percentage points, while Dean squeezed out a 5-point advantage among those citing the Iraq war. Voters focused on education picked Kerry; Dean led among those who cited balancing the budget.

Clark showed the most strength among voters focusing on Iraq and foreign affairs. Edwards and Lieberman did not stand out on any issue for New Hampshire voters, the poll found.

The poll underscored the cost to Dean of the war’s declining relevance for Democratic voters. Dean did a better job of holding his antiwar base than he did in Iowa; his problem was that so few voters made their decisions primarily on that issue.

Yet for all these distinctions, the poll suggests that issue differences were not the driving factor in the race. During the eight days between the Iowa vote and the New Hampshire primary, the candidates emphasized personal qualities more than issues, and that focus was evident in the survey. Much sharper divides were evident when voters were asked which personal qualities they prized most in the contenders.

For instance, about four in 10 voters cited leadership as the quality they liked most about their candidate, more than picked any other characteristic. Those voters gave Kerry roughly a two-to-one advantage over Dean. And Kerry led Dean by almost four to one among the voters who said political experience was most important to them.

“Kerry has not only been able to appeal to a broad range of Democrats, but by highlighting his military record and experience, to brush aside his nuanced message on the Iraq war,” said Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000.

Kerry supported the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, but as a candidate he has criticized President Bush for failing to build more international support for the war.

About one-quarter of voters said the most important quality to them was bringing change to Washington, and they preferred Dean over Kerry by 7 points. Likewise, more than a fifth of voters said new ideas and vision were the qualities they most liked about their candidate, and they preferred Dean over Kerry by more than two to one.

Brazile said that Dean’s effort to paint Kerry as a Washington insider without firm convictions could yet cause headaches for the senator but that Edwards was more likely to benefit from the offensive than Dean. After two defeats, “I don’t believe Dean can recapture his old momentum,” she said.

The poll underscores how thoroughly Kerry has filled the space that Clark hoped to occupy: as the alternative to Dean with the experience in foreign and military affairs to effectively challenge Bush.

Kerry beat Clark as decisively as he beat Dean among voters who cited leadership as their top concern.

“Kerry has filled a lot of gaps that existed in the race,” said Brazile.

With Edwards, the key attractions were empathy for ordinary people (which more than four in 10 of his voters cited), new ideas (cited by nearly four in 10) and the belief that he ran a more positive campaign (more than one in four).

Lieberman’s strongest qualities were trust, experience and leadership, all cited by more than 40% of his voters.

Yet both men had to be discouraged by the results. Lieberman finished fifth, though he skipped the Iowa caucuses to focus on New Hampshire. He pledged to press on, but his weak performance Tuesday even among moderate voters gives him little reason for optimism as the race moves toward the Southern and Southwestern states he has been counting on.

Edwards, though drawing large, enthusiastic crowds, was unable to replicate the surge that carried him to second place in Iowa. In an interview on CNN, he acknowledged that he would not be able to sustain his campaign unless he won the primary in his native South Carolina next Tuesday.

Especially ominous for Edwards was evidence that many New Hampshire Democrats had doubts about his readiness for the presidency: Among those citing qualities such as experience and leadership, Edwards won less than one in 10 votes.

Although many media analysts had argued that electability was the top concern for New Hampshire Democrats, only one-quarter of voters cited the ability to beat Bush in November as one of the principal qualities that drew them to their candidate.

Kerry led Dean by more than three to one among those voters. Clark and Edwards, who both have emphasized their ability to challenge Bush in the South, each won about 10% of those voters.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

New Hampshire primary voters speak

Q: What did you most like about your candidate today?+

*--* All Dem. Primary Kerry Dean Clark Edwards Lieberman Voters voters voters voters voters voters Cares about people like me 32 27 33 28 44 38 Has political experience 30 51 18 7 10 46 Is the most liberal 6 5 8 2 6 3 Washington outsider 10 2 20 19 11 1 Has new ideas/vision 22 10 35 18 39 9 Has strong qualities of leadership 41 49 27 66 27 41 Can win in November 25 37 16 26 22 7 Can bring needed change 24 21 34 20 25 13 Trust him more than the others 21 14 21 17 23 51 Has military experience 11 19 1 30 1 1 Opposed war in Iraq 10 4 23 8 2 1 Is more positive 8 4 6 5 26 12 Is charismatic 4 2 5 4 11 4

*--*

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Q: Which issues, if any, were most important to you in deciding how you would vote today?+

*--* All Dem. Primary Kerry Dean Clark Edwards Lieberman Voters voters voters voters voters voters Education 26 26 25 23 32 24 Economy/jobs 45 49 37 40 50 49 Balancing the 16 13 23 11 13 14 budget Taxes/tax cuts 11 12 8 13 15 12 Foreign trade 3 2 3 3 5 2 Health care 36 36 45 26 37 25 World affairs 21 22 17 34 10 25 Situation in 14 11 17 23 8 11 Iraq Social 7 9 5 6 7 8 Security/ Medicare

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Q: Which of these things, if any, had a major influence on your vote today?+

*--* All Dem. Primary Kerry Dean Clark Edwards Lieberman Voters voters voters voters voters voters The candidate debates 36 38 29 27 50 43 Endorsement from Democratic leaders 6 7 7 4 4 4 Campaign advertisements 9 7 5 14 16 7 Candidate’s tax cut proposals 10 11 8 10 9 13 Candidate’s stand on Iraq war 26 19 42 34 5 22 Candidate’s proposal on health care 29 31 36 17 23 24 Outcome of Iowa caucuses 7 11 4 4 10 4 A personal meeting with a candidate 13 12 14 18 16 7

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Q: Did you vote for your candidate today because he has the best chance of beating George W. Bush in November or because you agree with him on most issues you care about?

*--* All Dem. Primary Kerry Dean Clark Edwards Lieberman Voters voters voters voters voters voters Can beat George Bush: 42 60 29 47 35 18 Agree with on most issues: 58 40 71 53 65 82

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Q: When did you make up your mind about how to vote today?

*--* All Dem. Primary Kerry Dean Clark Edwards Lieberman Voters voters voters voters voters voters Over the weekend or later: 43 39 36 44 59 52 Last week, after Iowa caucuses: 14 22 7 8 16 12 Sometime before then: 43 39 57 48 25 36

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Q: Do you prefer a Democratic nominee who favored war with Iraq or one who opposed it?

*--* All Dem. Primary Kerry Dean Clark Edwards Lieberman Voters voters voters voters voters voters Favored war 26 28 12 24 33 64 Opposed war 74 72 88 76 67 36

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Q: How vulnerable do you think George W. Bush is in his bid for a second term?

Democratic primary voters

Very vulnerable:32%

Somewhat vulnerable:47%

Not too vulnerable:16%

Not vulnerable at all:5%

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+Multiple responses accepted

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Based on preliminary exit poll results. Numbers may not total 100% where more than one response was accepted or some answer categories are not shown.

Times poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll.

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How the poll was conducted: The Los Angeles Times Poll interviewed 2,847 Democratic primary voters who cast ballots in the New Hampshire primary as they exited 58 polling places across the state. Precincts were chosen based on the pattern of turnout in past primary elections. The survey was a self-administered, confidential questionnaire. The margin of sampling error for all Democratic primary voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For some subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Fieldwork for this study was conducted by Schlesinger Associates, New Jersey.


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