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Americans Grim on Economy, Split on Presidential Race

March 27, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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A Pew Research Center poll finds that Americans have a strongly negative view of the economy, are closely split over support for presidential candidates and that the controversial remarks of Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have not hurt the candidate's campaign. Pollster Andy Kohut explains the numbers.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, for a breakdown of what voters are saying about the economy and other matters, we turn to Andrew Kohut. He’s president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Andy, good to see you again.

ANDREW KOHUT, President, Pew Research Center: Happy to be here, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s start by talking about what you found in terms of what people think about the overall economy compared to the last downturn?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, it’s not a pretty story. Every month — January, February, and March — we get a more negative reading on the national economy. Only 11 percent are telling us in the recent poll that the national economy is either excellent or good. We have to go back all the way to the recession of the mid-’90s to get such a negative appraisal from the American public.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we have some graphics we want to share with our audience. And I’m going to let you talk us through these. First off, you asked people about their own personal finances.

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes, that’s the good news. You can see 47 percent say their own personal finances are excellent or good; that’s a long cry from 11 percent. And those numbers have not been moving. So people are very negative about — worried about what they see on the national economy, but it really hasn’t come home.

However, the consequence of this view, even though it’s not a personal one, is most people think we’re in recession. So that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you also asked people, what is their main, their chief economic concern?

ANDREW KOHUT: It’s pretty lopsided, as that chart shows. It’s prices. It’s inflation, 49 percent rising prices, and 20 percent jobs. Relatively few are talking about the financial markets.

Unless you talk to people who earn more than $100,000 a year, you don’t get a registration very much on anything other than rising prices, fuel, food, that sort of thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it’s inflation that remains what people — the things that they buy.

ANDREW KOHUT: It’s inflation. Sure, absolutely.

Projecting the general election

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
The two leading [Democratic] candidates aren't hurting the Democratic chances by their campaigning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let's talk more broadly. You asked people on the campaign, you asked people to look at the so-called match-up between the two Democratic candidates for president and John McCain.

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes, and the Democrats have been campaigning hard against each other, but yet we get the same relative lead for both Barack Obama in that chart, 49 percent to 43 percent. That's about what we had back in February. And there's no diminution of support for Barack Obama.

And if we look at the next chart, which is Hillary Clinton, 49 percent to 44 percent, small lead, surprisingly small given all the advantages that the Republicans have, but no smaller...

JUDY WOODRUFF: That the Democrats have?

ANDREW KOHUT: That the Democrats have, but no smaller than what we saw a month ago. So the Democrats -- the two leading candidates aren't hurting the Democratic chances by their campaigning, is the import of that trend.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what about when you asked people to choose between the two Democrats?

ANDREW KOHUT: There we get again no change from what we had a month ago. We get a 10-point lead for Barack Obama. And the overall conclusion of this poll is that Barack Obama has weathered the Wright storm, the Wright controversy.

Obama rebounds after race speech

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
[The Reverend Wright story] is the number one campaign event that we've seen in the news interest tracking that we've been doing over the past year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, his former minister?

ANDREW KOHUT: And there was a great outpouring of negative reaction, an extraordinary amount of attention to this. Fifty-one percent said they had heard a lot about Wright's sermons; 54 percent said they had heard a lot about Obama's speech; and you get 80 percent saying they'd heard something about these things.

And this is the number one campaign event that we've seen in the news interest tracking that we've been doing over the past year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Number one?

ANDREW KOHUT: Number one. No story, the red telephone, none of that stuff has resonated like the Reverend Wright sermons and Obama's response.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, as you said, half the people said they haven't heard that much about it, but over 50 percent have heard a great deal.

ANDREW KOHUT: A big number in a political poll.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also asked, Andy, about Senator Obama and how he was handling this controversy.

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes, I think what this survey shows is that, as a consequence of the way he's handled it, his speech, he assured his own supporters: 84 percent of them said in that chart he did an excellent or good job.

But significant numbers of his opponents' supporters, 43 percent of the Clinton people said he did an excellent or good job and 33 percent of the Republicans. Judy, when was the last time we heard 33 percent of Republicans saying something good about a Democratic candidate?

He answered a lot of the questions that arose as a consequence of the Wright controversy, and we don't see any significant movement in the numbers as a consequence.

Potential problems for Obama

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
The problem for Obama among white Democrats is that a significant number of them have social beliefs and attitudes that lead to a negative view of Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see anything else, though, in these numbers that tell you how much of an issue this may be for him down the road, if he were to be the Democratic nominee?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, we did a very in-depth look at how white Democrats view Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And what we found is that Obama has a glowing image and a more positive image than Mrs. Clinton.

But the problem for Obama among white Democrats is that a significant number of them have social beliefs and attitudes that lead to a negative view of Obama.

Critics of Obama, people who have an unfavorable view of him, are inclined to say equal rights have been pushed too far, are inclined to say that they disapprove of interracial dating, and that immigrants threaten our culture. These are Obama's critics.

And that's why we see working-class Democrats voting so much against Obama or for Hillary Clinton, because their own view, even though he has a positive image for most people, their own personal views are -- it's a threat to their own personal views.

Now, this is among the Democratic electorate. We get to a broader electorate, these same issues...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Including independents and the Republicans.

ANDREW KOHUT: ... including independents and Republicans. In fact, what we see is that, if people hold these attitudes, they are drawn to McCain irrespective of whether they're Republicans, Democrats, independents, or whatever demographic group they belong to.

This is a potential problem for him. He's certainly addressed it pretty positive -- pretty well among the Democratic electorate, but it could come back to be a campaign issue in the fall should he win the nomination.

Clinton's public image

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
Opinions of [Hillary Clinton] are less favorable. Fewer people say she's inspiring or honest or down-to-Earth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, you said that many people who have a favorable opinion of Barack Obama, wherever they support him for president. What about opinions of Hillary Clinton?

ANDREW KOHUT: Hillary Clinton -- opinions of her are less favorable. Fewer people say she's inspiring or honest or down-to-Earth. And a fair number of white Democrats -- and they are the real swing group -- say she's hard to like, 43 percent; 30 percent say she's a phony.

And what we find in the analysis of opinions about Hillary Clinton, this notion of her credibility. The relatively lower ratings for honesty, the relatively high rating for being a phony is what drives negative views of Hillary Clinton. So this Bosnia thing might well resonate with what...

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the story this week, where she talked about being under sniper fire when she arrived in Bosnia back in 1996.

ANDREW KOHUT: Right. And this issue might resonate with what even previous to this issue, this flap, was in play in the way a significant number of Democrats look at her.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we should point out, you found out she's got high favorability ratings among Democrats, less so among independents.

ANDREW KOHUT: And the story of Obama is that he does well among -- better among independents than she does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Andy Kohut, a lot to look at, and we appreciate your being with us, as always.

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.