Articles and Analysis


Obama v. McCain (and v. Clinton): Beneath the Surface

Topics: 2008 , Barack Obama , CNN , Hillary Clinton , John McCain , National Journal , SurveyUSA , USAToday Gallup

Much like the Dow is but one measure of the nation's economy, Presidential horserace numbers are just one measurement of how a race is evolving. And like the Dow's prominent appearance in newscasts and newspapers, horserace numbers are usually the only Presidential polling numbers to appear regularly in political coverage.

But this far out from Election Day, horserace numbers are, ultimately, close to meaningless, especially without an incumbent. We look at many other indicators of campaign health, frequently referred to in pollster parlance as "beneath the surface." Two recent public polls from USA Today/Gallup and from CNN/Opinion Research (before Obama's race speech) show that despite the coverage of Obama's slippage in the general election matchup, he remains stronger than McCain on most dimensions. In many ways, Obama is also stronger than Clinton.

The polls cited here are quite similar, their dates are identical, and both the structure of the survey instructions and the individual rating items are quite similar (full results for the CNN poll appear in National Journal's 3/18/08 Hotline, available by subscription). Respondents hear a series of descriptions three times-once for each candidate-and report whether they feel each item describes each candidate. I like this methodology because respondents are not forced to evaluate multiple candidates in a single question. (The last three columns show the differences between the candidates; "BO-JM" is Obama's advantage over McCain, for example. The tables are also ranked by Obama's advantage over McCain.)


On Most Dimensions, Obama is Stronger Than McCain

Obama is most likely to best McCain on measures of empathy, such as "cares about people like you," or understands problems Americans face in their daily lives." He also does very well on being "someone you would be proud to have as President." McCain's weakest dimension is "generally agrees with you on the issues" and both Obama and Clinton have a clear advantage over McCain here.

Obama does less well on items related to experience, such as "is a strong and decisive leader" and "has the right experience to be President." However, despite these disadvantages, more items from both surveys are seen as describing Obama than McCain.

Obama Is Also Stronger Than Clinton

In both surveys, Obama is described by more traits than is Clinton. Once again, his strengths are on empathy, but he also exceeds Clinton on "would work with both parties to get things done." Obama trails Clinton on experience and decisiveness, as he trailed McCain, but it's important to note that Clinton also trails McCain on these measures (although by not nearly as much).

McCain is strongest on "honest and trustworthy," and Obama is close to even with him on that measure. But it is Clinton's weakest dimension on the USA Today/Gallup poll (it wasn't asked in the CNN/OR poll). In fact, Gallup has tracking that shows Clinton to be the weakest she's ever been on this measure since 1994.

The Obama campaign has had a difficult few weeks (pre-speech); no doubt the fluctuation in the horserace reflects those events and missteps. But beneath the surface, a more complex picture of Obama's strength emerges. Just as economic indicators (like home foreclosures) can reveal more about the economy than the Dow, horserace numbers are necessary, but not sufficient, to understand the Presidential race.



Margie Omero:
These conclusions are similar to what I found with the NBC/WSJ poll conducted March 7-10:
[self-plug here!]

[I cross-posted this on the NBC/WSJ page on Pollster.com]

The period of these two surveys - March 14-16 - are just after the Wright controversy surfaced, and it will be interesting to see how these numbers hold up in the coming weeks.



Interesting things are how people portray Hillary as the least honest of the 3 candidates and the most unlikely to work across party lines to get things done.

McCain actually is weaker to portray change than Hillary has been in the campaign which is also interesting. So I'm expecting a continuation of Change vs. Experience into the general election after Obama secures the nomination.




How do you see the race shaping up closer to November with regards to race/gender. How will the upcoming "swift-boat" tactics of the right wing affect Obama. I fully expect the "he's a Muslim, no wait a secret Muslim, and the terrorists will be dancing in the steets if he gets elected, no wait he's a radical black Christian, and the terrorists will still be dancing in the steets if he gets elected, etc." type ads to bog him down.

I really have no confidence in the electorate. It's not like we are living in Europe. Bush was elected not once but twice, remember? Was it Plato that said people get the government they deserve?



Andrew - I agree about the durability of change vs. experience, but since both qualities are positives, my mind went (read: wandered) to the more negative / polarizing factors.

John, I'll take a crack at your question.

Just based on these sets of numbers....

Clinton. Considering the "dishonesty" factor, I'm sure McCain would go for "honest, transparent straight-talking, incorruptible" himself vs. "secretive, 'congenital liar', unstable, corrupt" Clinton (with the media doing its part by giving McCain credit for having the guts to change his positions, while criticizing Clinton for waffling and pandering.)

Obama. Setting aside the experience factor, Obama's two vulnerabilities against McCain appear to be 'strong and decisive leader,' and 'having clear plans.' If I remember correctly these deficits showed up in the Pew survey as well.

So I suspect McCain would go for dichotomies like the "pragmantic realist" vs. the "dreamy liberal", and the "rough-and-tumble man's man" vs. the "urbane elite intellectual" (read: feminized) Obama. Also they'd play up the "overbearing, dominating" wife to further accentuate relative "lack" of strength. Bush vs. Gore, Reagan vs. Mondale, Kerry speaking French and so on. [I loathe this stuff].

Aside from spin / message -

I don't understand how Obama can have a significant advantage over Clinton on "change" (+7) but run even on "vision" (+2, -1). If your "vision" isn't to change (and hopefully improve) things, its not much of a vision, is it?

Unfortunately neither set of figures shows the 800 lb gorilla - best able to manage / fix the economy - McCain has a whopping vulnerability there.


Mark Lindeman:

Ciccina, looks like apples and oranges. Crudely, in this poll, people thought both Obama and Clinton had a vision for the future, but were more optimistic that Obama could actually bring about the change.

Of course, some people perceive Obama as having more of a vision, but less chance of delivering; others think that the candidates have very similar policy preferences, but Obama's style has a better chance of marshaling public support. And so on. Of those two, the latter fits better with the result of this particular survey.

Just like every other survey, this one shouldn't be overinterpreted.




Thanks for the clarification - I see what you mean. I wasn't reading carefully enough.

But if you can't overinterpret, where's the fun? Don't stifle the imagination, Mark - let it soar!



Joseph E:


If these polls and the analysis are correct, why are HRC and BO doing worse in the polls vs. McCain than we would expect?

Are they missing some other leadership quality that is important. Ciccina mentions the economy... but any domestic issue (economy, healthcare, education) ought to go for the democrats.

Is sexism and racism making the difference here?

The "cares about people like you" and "understands problems" numbers seem to argue against the "-ism's" as the key problem.

Are voters just responding with some sort of visceral support for McCain, because of the good press and good reputation he's had in the past?

I'm stumpted.

But I'm feeling much more optimistic for Hillary and Barack than I have in quite a while... especially for Obama.


Mark Lindeman:

Ciccina: I figure I overinterpreted in the first 'graph, then dialed it down from there. By the way, I'm still chewing on your post about civil rights, feminism, etc.

Joseph: I think McCain hasn't been attacked much, and indeed he had considerable positives coming in, so it's not so surprising. Not to rule out racism and sexism, although in some parallel universe where Edwards is still running strong, I don't think he is beating McCain right now either.



Mark, it looks like the difference between "who would you vote for" and a whole series of probing questions breaking down how one feels about a candidate should be the message. I thought Margie was saying that these numbers are more stable than the "pick one" polls. Am I off base?

Hopefully this posts; it's been 5 minutes since I tried my last one and it didn't make it. I'll try not to take it personally.


Mark Lindeman:

Lenore, I'm not the Mark you're looking for, but a quick thought. I don't think Margie Omero was saying that these numbers are necessarily more stable, but they reflect the underlying considerations that people will ultimately draw on (to varying degrees and in differing ways) to make their decisions.

Zaller and Feldman Lite: If people have things they like and dislike about each candidate, they will tend to sample from those things when asked whom they would vote for. So if you ask them a bunch of questions about what they like and dislike about each candidate, you get a lot more information than if you just ask the horse race question.

But these underlying attitudes can be altered. Some of them are probably pretty stable in the absence of new information (accurate or otherwise), but they aren't inherently stable. Is Barack Obama a figure of national unity, or is he allied with angry Others? Stay tuned....



I think my post got lost, but Mark, don't worry, you'll do. And thanks for the clarification.


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