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Pew Poll Finds McCain Faces Enthusiasm Gap, Obama Sees Unity Challenge

July 10, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Sen. John McCain is facing an enthusiasm gap on the campaign trail, a new Pew poll shows, while his rival, Sen. Barack Obama, faces his own challenges leading a divided party. After a campaign news update, the Pew center's Andy Kohut discusses the poll's findings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Barack Obama and John McCain dueled on the economy today. Obama campaigned in Fairfax, Va., where he focused on economic security for women. He raised recent statements by McCain and by one of his advisers, former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, saying they failed to understand the concerns of women voters.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Ill.: Senator McCain is an honorable man. He has rendered extraordinary service to this nation, and we deeply respect that service.

But when you look at our records and you look at our plans on the economic issues that matter most to women, it becomes very clear that he will not bring change, and I will.

That starts with acknowledging the economic difficulties that so many families and so many women are experiencing right now. If you can’t see the problem, you’re not going to solve it.

Senator McCain, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to see the problem. He surveyed the Bush economic record and he’s said that we have, quote, unquote, “made great progress” with the economy.

Today, one of his top economic advisers, former Senator Phil Gramm, said that we’re merely in a “mental recession.”

That’s what he said. He said we’re in a “mental recession.” It’s all — he didn’t say this, but I guess what he meant was that it’s a figment of your imagination, these high gas prices. Senator Gramm then deemed the United States, and I quote, “a nation of whiners.”

Whoa, a nation of whiners. Now, this comes after Senator McCain recently admitted that his energy proposals, you know, for the gas tax holiday and the drilling, will have mainly, quote, “psychological benefits.”

Now, I want all of you to know that America already has one Dr. Phil. We don’t need another one when it comes to the economy. We need somebody to actually solve the economy.

It’s not just a figment of your imagination. It’s not all in your head.

Economy retains center stage

JUDY WOODRUFF: McCain responded this afternoon in Belleville, Mich., where he had just finished discussing the economy with workers at an auto parts manufacturer.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Ariz.: I don't agree with Senator Gramm. I believe that the person here in Michigan that just lost his job isn't suffering from a mental recession. I believe the mother here in Michigan and around America who is trying to get enough money to educate their children isn't whining.

America is in great difficulty. And we're experiencing enormous economic challenges, as well as others.

Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me. So I strongly disagree. Go ahead and follow up. Go ahead.

JOURNALIST: In Senator Obama's response, his campaign has noted that previously you've said that part of the recession is psychological and some of your energy plan will have, quote, "psychological benefits."

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, first of all, if we will drill off-shore, which Senator Obama is opposed to -- as he's opposed to every, whether it be off-shore drilling, whether it be nuclear power, whether it be any of the efforts we need to make. He's -- you're talking about Dr. Phil? He's Dr. No. He's Dr. No on energy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: McCain was then asked if elected whether he would still consider former Senator Gramm for a cabinet-level post.

JOURNALIST: Is there any chance that Phil Gramm would be your secretary of treasury or play a significant economic policy-making role in a McCain administration?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I think Senator Gramm would be in serious consideration for ambassador to Belarus, although I'm not sure the citizens of Minsk would welcome that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In an interview with the Washington Post today, Gramm stood by his comments, saying, "I'm not going to retract any of it. Every word I said was true."

Polls show uncertainty in decision

JUDY WOODRUFF: As Obama and McCain continue to battle over who can best lead the country out of its economic downturn, there's a new poll out today that sheds some light on the candidates' strengths and weaknesses.

Here to tell us about his latest survey is Andrew Kohut. He's president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Andy Kohut, good to see you again.

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

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the poll -- you were out in the field in late June. First of all, tell us what you're showing in terms of where this race stands today right now between McCain and Obama.

ANDREW KOHUT: Forty-eight percent say they would either definitely or might vote for Obama, 40 percent for McCain, a significant Obama lead, pretty consistent with what the other polls are showing.

Two important qualifications: a much larger swing vote than we had four years ago, many people saying, "I'm not really sure." A third of the people that said, "I'm not really sure about this." We only had 21 percent saying that four years ago.

And in particular, the independents are very unsure. Nearly half of the independents said, "Either I'm undecided or I could change my mind."

The good news for Obama is most of his support is strong support. However, for John McCain, unfortunately and uncharacteristically of Republicans, many of his backers said, "Well, I'm not a strong supporter. I'm just a moderate supporter of John McCain," very unusual, very potentially difficult for John McCain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So some concern for each of the candidates in those numbers?

ANDREW KOHUT: Some concern for each of the candidates, but it ain't over yet. We've got a long way to go, a fair amount of instability there, and people are -- uncertainty in people's answers.

Interest, engagement, skyrocket

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Andy, one of the things you measure in every election is voter engagement. First of all, tell us what you mean by that and then what you found.

ANDREW KOHUT: Every four years at this time since 1992, we asked people how much thought they're giving the election, how people -- look at how much interest they're paying to election news, ask them if they're more interested.

This year, we get record numbers of people saying they've given a lot of thought to the election. As many as 72 percent say, "I've given quite a lot of thought to the election." That's typically what we get in October. I don't know what it's going to be in October.

This measure and every other measure of engagement show more interest, people more connected to the election. When we graph what we find in June, we typically get a pretty good indication of what turnout is going to be. And this would suggest we could really have a doozy, in terms of number of Americans who come out and cast a ballot.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, within those numbers, you were telling me you see more engagement by self-identified Democrats.

ANDREW KOHUT: That's the other exceptional thing here. In every election that I've ever been involved in, either it's been even or the Republicans are more interested. In this election, the Democrats are more interested.

More of them say they think it matters who's elected than the Republicans say that. Greater numbers say they're satisfied with the candidates. And this could mean that the composition of the electorate, if this stays this way, could be more disproportionately Democratic, which obviously would be good news for Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were saying you see surprising engagement among young people?

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes, a lot of this is people under 50 years of age. The most shocking things in this poll is that more young people gave us the correct answers to what the candidates' positions were on Iraq and abortion than did older voters. I've never seen anything like that.

Rallying the base around the issues

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fascinating.

All right, a lot of questions, Andy, we know, within each party about how the candidate is doing with the so-called base. What did you find among the Republicans and among, especially among the former Hillary...

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, as I said, McCain has an enthusiasm problem, but the Democrats have a unity problem. We only find 69 percent of Hillary Clinton's supporters, former supporters of Hillary Clinton saying that they would definitely vote -- they would vote for Barack Obama.

McCain's opponents, 84 percent or 82 percent say they would back him. So there's still -- Obama and the Democrats still have to get some of these Hillary people who aren't on board, in particular older women. If you look at the breakdown and the horserace among older women, it's essentially even.

And while Obama's doing reasonably well among women, he's not doing as well as he might be doing, given the fact that this is a very strong Democratic year and they're a core Democratic constituency. So there is a unity issue within the Democratic Party.

The good news for the Democrats is there's a higher percentage -- that 69 percent is 10 points higher than it was a month ago when it was only 59 percent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, finally, you also asked people what issues the matter most to them. And what did you see there?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, in light of today's news, the economy is number one; 44 percent volunteered the economy. That's...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Forty-four percent.

ANDREW KOHUT: ... 44 percent said, "That's it," followed by energy and gas prices. This is an electorate that's very, very concerned with domestic issues, especially those that are economic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's been consistent through the year, that number on the economy?

ANDREW KOHUT: It's been consistent since January, where it's overcome concern or trumps concern for Iraq. The people who -- when we asked people who have most confidence to deal with these economic issues, Obama has a 20-point lead. When we ask people who they have most confidence to protect the country, McCain still has a 22-point lead.

And even on Iraq, there's a little more confidence in McCain than in Obama. But there's a big gap in the way people see the abilities and the strengths of these two candidates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fascinating. There's a lot of really interesting material in this poll. Andy Kohut, thank you very much.

ANDREW KOHUT: You're welcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it.