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Polls Show Tight Democratic Race, Waning GOP Support

May 1, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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New polls reveal a tightening race between Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton tied while public support for GOP showed a sharp drop. Pollsters and reporters from the Pew Research Center and the Wall Street Journal examine the numbers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the presidential candidates sticking to the issues today. Kwame Holman reports.

ANNOUNCER: Please welcome Senator John McCain.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican John McCain held a town hall meeting in Cleveland, this morning, another chance for him to tout his plan to give families tax credits to help pay for health insurance. McCain also explained the need to streamline patient medical records through better use of computers.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: One of the biggest problems we have in health care — and we don’t like to talk about it a lot — is medical error, medical error, where they can’t — which I’m sure that our nurse friends here would certainly agree. The illegible writing of many physicians makes it an incredible task to interpret.

But the point is that they don’t have to look at that anymore; they go online and they know exactly what’s needed for that patient.

KWAME HOLMAN: McCain took questions on his health care plan and other pocketbook issues, such as the rising cost of gasoline. He used the opportunity to, once again, pitch his proposal for a summer-long federal gas tax holiday.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: In case you haven’t heard, I called for and asked for a little relief for this summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day from people having to pay 18-cents-a-gallon tax for gasoline and 24-cents-a-gallon tax for diesel fuel, just to give them a little break for the summer. You’d have thought that it was the end of Western civilization as we know it.

And wouldn’t it be nice? Maybe at the end of this summer, parents would have a little more money to buy the school supplies for their kids that are going back to school. Maybe they could have a little nicer — maybe a night out and have a meal.

I mean, when we have families sitting around the kitchen table who have just lost their jobs and don’t know how they’re going to keep their home, why don’t we give them a little break?

Democrats split on gas tax

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Democrat Barack Obama campaigned in South Bend, Ind., this afternoon and reiterated his opposition to the gas tax holiday.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: That's a gimmick. That's not solving the problem. Worse yet, it comes out of the Federal Highway Transportation Fund, which means we're not rebuilding our roads and our bridges that are vital to commerce here in Indiana and employ thousands of people during the summer.

And, what's worse, economists say that, without the gas tax, there's nothing to prevent the oil companies from just jacking up the price the same amount that the gas tax was.

And we might end up driving more because the gas tax has been eliminated, so that will keep on driving the prices up.

All around, this was a bad idea. But the reason that it was presented was not because it was a good idea; it was because, politically, it looked like it might be a winner, that folks in Washington might be able to say, "Look, we did something," and they might get some votes between now and election day.

And I've said no. We can't keep on doing that all the time. We can't make our decisions based on what's politically popular. We've got to make it based on what America needs.

KWAME HOLMAN: As for Hillary Clinton, she campaigned in Brownsburg, just outside Indianapolis, where she criticized both her rivals' positions on the gas tax.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Sen. Barack Obama says we shouldn't do it and it's a gimmick, and Sen. John McCain says we should do it but we shouldn't pay for it.

I sometimes feel like the Goldilocks of this campaign, you know, not too much, not too little, just right. And I think we should have a gas tax holiday and pay for it.

Nobody is arguing it's an answer. But you know what it says? And, boy, we haven't heard this in a long time. It says, "Guess what? We're paying attention to how much you are suffering with these increased costs."

Guess what? We are going to expect you to move toward higher gas mileage cars. We just don't have enough of them that are affordable enough for everybody to be able to do it right now. We're going to have to become more energy-efficient.

Yes, we're going to have to do all of that. But I find it, frankly, a little offensive that people who don't have to worry about filling up their gas tank or what they buy when they go to the supermarket think that it's somehow illegitimate to provide relief for the millions and millions of Americans who are on the brink of losing their jobs, unable to keep up with their daily expenses.

So, as I say, we have to do both.

KWAME HOLMAN: The most recent polls show candidates Clinton and Obama locked in a tight race in Indiana, with Obama ahead of Clinton by at least 7 points in North Carolina. The two states hold their primaries on Tuesday.

Recent shifts in public opinion

JUDY WOODRUFF: Beyond Indiana and North Carolina, there is new national polling data that shows some interesting shifts in voters' opinions of the three major presidential candidates.

Here to talk about it is Andrew Kohut. He's president of the Pew Research Center, which released its poll today. And Jackie Calmes, she's the chief political reporter for the Wall Street Journal, which teamed with NBC News in releasing its poll.

It's good to see you both.

JACKIE CALMES, Wall Street Journal: Thank you.

ANDREW KOHUT, president, Pew Research Center: Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy, to you first. First of all, what are you seeing in the Democratic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? He's the one who's been under a fair amount of scrutiny in the last few weeks.

ANDREW KOHUT: And I think, as a consequence, he's lost his lead in our national poll. We have 47 percent supporting him, 45 percent Clinton. Three weeks ago, it was a 49 percent to 39 percent Obama lead.

And I want to point out this poll was taken before the re-emergence of Reverend Wright, so it doesn't -- that doesn't factor into this. It's the things that happened before, and they resulted in Obama's image sliding a little bit.

It's still very good, but there are modest declines across the board, fewer superlatives being used to describe Obama. The percentage of people saying "honest" is a little bit off. The percentage saying "inspiring" is a little bit off. And we've seen a pretty big decline in the percentage of people saying "down to earth."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in that vein, let's look at one of those numbers. Among those voters -- this is a group of voters Obama has had some difficulty appealing to, white Democrats earning under $50,000 a year. Back in March, 81 percent said they viewed Obama as down-to-earth. In your latest poll, it's down to 62 percent.

ANDREW KOHUT: The characteristic of this poll is that race and class play an even larger role than three weeks ago in determining who the preferences are of the Democrats. Three weeks ago, Clinton had a 12-point lead among poor, white Democrats. It's a 40-point lead -- hard to believe -- a 40-point lead among working-class Democrats in the current survey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jackie, as we pointed out I think a minute ago, this Pew poll was in the field through Sunday. This was just as the Jeremiah Wright -- the latest Jeremiah Wright controversy was unfolding. Your Wall Street Journal-NBC poll in the field through Monday. Did you see any more evidence of the effect on Obama?

JACKIE CALMES: Well, our poll overall was fairly close to Pew, and I think a lot of what we've seen -- or the re-emergence of Reverend Wright won't be really reflected in either of our polls.

And what's more, Senator Obama's repudiation of Reverend Wright on Tuesday would, of course, not be reflected at all.

But even despite this, for the first time in our poll, Senator Obama has a lead. It's a slight one, and it's 3 points, 46 percent-43 percent, which is -- 3 points is the margin of error -- over Senator Clinton among Democratic voters.

But that may be a lagging indicator. The negative feelings about some of these episodes, like Reverend Wright, like his gaffe about working-class people being so bitter about their position that they make an issue of guns and their religion, may not have shown up yet.

Measuring negative characteristics

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy, we know that, as you're saying, Senator Obama's been hurt. How's all that translated for Senator Clinton? And, again, I want to look here at a specific adjective you used. You asked people to judge the candidates on several different adjectives. One of those words was "phony."

Back in March, 22 percent of Democrats said they connected Senator Clinton with that word; in April, up to 35 percent.

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes, that's one of the ironies of this survey. Even though she gained 6 percentage points in support, her credibility problem was bigger. The percentage of people who said she was honest was smaller than it was three weeks ago.

And, in fact, she has a somewhat less favorable image, even as she's gaining some support, meaning that this has to do, in this case, with more about opinions of Democrats, specifically white Democrats, about Obama than opinions about Hillary Clinton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Jackie, it's really interesting. You broaden this out and you look not just at the Democrats, but you bring the Republican in, too, John McCain.

It shows -- and you looked at the negative attitudes toward all three candidates -- for John McCain, there was a 30 percent negative view; for Barack Obama, 37 percent; for Hillary Clinton, 44 percent negative. Help us understand that.

JACKIE CALMES: Well, the interesting thing is that, you know, Senator Clinton has the highest negative. But of the three -- and she's the only one of the three with a net negative, meaning more people view her negatively than positively -- but of those three, she's the only one -- she's slightly improved over her previous rating in our March poll.

But the other two, Senator McCain and Senator Obama, both have net positive ratings. In Senator McCain's case, it's a plus-10 percent. There's 40 percent who view him positively, 30 percent negative. For Senator Obama, he's a plus-9 percent: 46 percent view him positively, 37 percent negatively.

But those plus-positives for each of Senator McCain and Senator Obama are half, roughly, than they were -- what their scores were a month ago in March. Senator McCain had a 20-point positive rating, and that's now cut in half, which shows he's come down to earth as he's had to campaign as a Republican partisan.

Predicting November match-ups

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Andy, pull that together. When you look at the match-ups, McCain-Obama, your numbers show Obama 50 percent, McCain 44 percent. And then when you match up Clinton-McCain, it's McCain 45 percent, Clinton 49 percent. What does that say?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, what it says is that this contentious Democratic race isn't hurting the electability of the Democrats so far, because those match-ups look pretty much like the match-up we found three weeks ago. Both Clinton and Obama run about as well as each other against McCain.

Now, they do it differently. Clinton gets a higher percentage of the Democratic base and therefore does reasonably well against McCain, not as well as some Democrats would have thought against a Republican candidate.

But Obama doesn't do so well among the Democratic base, but he has a much bigger draw to independents, a much bigger draw than Hillary Clinton does. The net-net is, though, you can't say that either one is more electable based upon the match-ups in our poll or most of the other polls that I've seen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we always have a caveat when we look at these match-ups this early in the year, we are still months away from the general election. This is a snapshot, of course.

And, Jackie, looking at that another way, John McCain, the Republicans went into this election year with a distinct disadvantage in all of the so-called fundamentals, and yet he's holding his own in these match-ups.

JACKIE CALMES: Well, not only did they go into this election year with a disadvantage, it's gotten worse, and our poll and other polls show that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Democrats?

JACKIE CALMES: And it's gotten worse for Republicans. But Senator McCain -- it's really remarkable to think that he's competitive at all with the Democratic candidate.

When you look in our poll, and people are just asked generically, "Would you prefer to have a Democrat win in November or a Republican?" They answer, by 51 percent to 33 percent, Democrat.

And yet, in these match-ups of a real Republican, John McCain, against the Democrats, it's a dead heat. And a lot of that just reflects that his reputation is as a maverick against his party.

So he's not yet -- I mean, Democrats are going to -- are beginning to make every effort to brand him as a Republican through and through. But right now, he's still -- it's the benefit of being seen as a maverick.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How unusual is it, Andy and Jackie, to see the presumed nominee of the party running so far ahead of where the party is?

ANDREW KOHUT: He's doing a great job of swimming against the tide, and like any candidate that I can really remember in any recent election.

JACKIE CALMES: But there's a real red flag for him out there. Our poll showed that the major concern that voters have about him is whether or not he will represent a third Bush term.

And in our poll, as others, President Bush's favorable rating is his lowest ever in his presidency: 27 percent in our poll. And to the extent John McCain is linked to Bush, it's a bad thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we can pretty much count on the Democrats...

JACKIE CALMES: Oh, they're already doing it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Jackie Calmes, Andy Kohut, thank you both.