Buoyed by enthusiasm among Democrats and public concern over the economy, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has taken a sizable lead over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at the opening of the general election campaign for president, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.
In a two-man race between the major-party candidates, registered voters chose Obama over McCain by 49% to 37% in the national poll, conducted Thursday through Monday.
On a four-man ballot that included independent candidate Ralph Nader and Libertarian Bob Barr, voters chose Obama over McCain by 48% to 33%.
Obama’s lead -- bigger in this poll than in most other national surveys -- appears to stem largely from his positions on domestic issues. Both Democrats and independent voters said Obama would do a better job than McCain at handling the nation’s economic problems, the public’s top concern.
In contrast, many voters said McCain was the more experienced candidate and better equipped to protect the nation against terrorism -- but they ranked those concerns below economic issues.
McCain suffers from a pronounced “passion gap,” especially among conservatives who usually give Republican candidates a reliable base of support. Among voters who described themselves as conservative, 58% said they would vote for McCain; 15% said they would vote for Obama, 14% said they would vote for someone else, and 13% said they were undecided. By contrast, 79% of voters who described themselves as liberal said they planned to vote for Obama.
“I’m a Republican . . . but I don’t like some of the things McCain voted for in the Senate, especially immigration,” said poll respondent Mary Dasen, 77, a retired United Way manager in Oscoda, Mich., who said she was undecided. “There’s a big chance I might stay home and not vote.”
Even among voters who said they planned to vote for McCain, more than half said they were “not enthusiastic” about their chosen candidate; 45% said they were enthusiastic. By contrast, 81% of Obama voters said they were enthusiastic, and almost half called themselves “very enthusiastic,” a level of zeal found in 13% of McCain’s supporters.
“McCain is not capturing the full extent of the conservative base the way President Bush did in 2000 and 2004,” said Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus. “Among conservatives, evangelicals and voters who identify themselves as part of the religious right, he is polling less than 60%.
“Meanwhile, Obama is doing well among a broad range of voters. He’s running ahead among women, black voters and other minorities. He’s running roughly even among white voters and independents.”
Among white voters, Obama and McCain are each at 39%, the poll found. Earlier this year, when Obama ran behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) among whites in some primary elections, analysts questioned whether the African American senator could win white voters in the general election.
But the great majority of Clinton voters have transferred their allegiance to Obama, the poll found, with 11% of Clinton voters defecting to McCain.
Both Nader -- a consumer advocate who was the Green Party candidate in 2000 and an independent candidate in 2004 -- and former Rep. Barr (R-Ga.) appear to siphon more votes from McCain than from Obama. When Nader and Barr are added to the ballot, they draw most of their support from independent voters who said they would otherwise vote for the Republican.
Nader was the choice of 4% of respondents, Barr of 3%. Nader is seeking to place his name on the ballot as an independent in at least 45 states and so far has succeeded in four. Barr’s Libertarian Party is on the ballot in 30 states and is working on the remaining 20.
Obama’s strong showing seems to stem from a general trend of increased support for Democratic candidates and Democratic positions after almost eight years of an increasingly unpopular Republican administration.
In this national poll’s random sample of voters, 39% identified themselves as Democrats, 22% as Republicans and 27% as independents. In a similar poll a year ago, 33% identified themselves as Democrats, 28% as Republicans and 30% as independents.
Such numbers often ebb and flow with the popularity of each political party. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Bush’s popularity soared, the number of voters who described themselves as Republicans rose too. During the last three years, as his popularity slumped, the number who identify themselves as Republicans also dropped.
The survey found public approval of the president’s job performance at a new low for a Times/Bloomberg poll: 23%, compared with 73% disapproval.
Fifty-one percent of voters said they had a “positive feeling” about the Democratic Party; 29% said that of the Republican Party.
“It appears to be a Democratic year,” Pinkus said. “This election is the Democrats’ to lose.”
On domestic issues, voters preferred Obama’s healthcare proposals to McCain’s by a margin of almost 30 percentage points: 53% to 26%. They also preferred Obama’s proposals on taxes, 45% to 31%, and on relief for homeowners facing foreclosure, 44% to 32%.
But voters considered McCain better equipped to protect the country from terrorism, 49% to 32%. And though 68% favored withdrawing troops from Iraq within the next year or even sooner, a position close to Obama’s, many were not sure Obama was the right candidate to lead that effort. When asked which candidate would be best at handling the war in Iraq, voters split about evenly: 44% named McCain and 42% named Obama.
That result reflected persistent doubts among many voters as to whether Obama is sufficiently experienced to be president. Voters split about evenly on that question too, with 46% agreeing that Obama is “too naive and inexperienced for the job” and 50% disagreeing.
Among independents, 54% said Obama was too inexperienced -- a potential vulnerability for him.
McCain, by contrast, was seen as better prepared for the presidency. Asked which candidate has the right experience for the White House, 47% picked McCain, 27% Obama.
The Times/Bloomberg poll, conducted under Pinkus’ supervision, interviewed 1,115 registered voters. Its margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.