November 23, 2005
Fatal Flaws For 2008 Front-Runners?

By Charlie Cook

The two presumptive favorites for 2008 presidential nominations each face enormous challenges, according to the new Cook Political Report/RT Strategies national poll. Indeed, their problems are almost mirror opposites of each other.

For New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrats and Democratic primary voters nationwide are highly receptive to her strengths and downplay her weaknesses. But among independents the view is considerably cooler, and is downright cold among Republicans, raising real questions of electability.

On the other hand, if Arizona Sen. John McCain were as well regarded among Republicans and GOP primary voters as he is among independents and Democrats, he'd be a cinch to be his party's 2008 nominee.

The new Cook Political Report poll of 1,001 adults nationwide (margin of error +/- 3.1 percent) was conducted by RT Strategies, a newly established bipartisan corporate/public affairs polling firm headed by Thom Riehle, former president of Ipsos Public Affairs and a veteran of the Peter Hart and Patrick Caddell Democratic polling firms, and Lance Tarrance, who was one of the pioneering Republican pollsters in the 1970s and 1980s. Tarrance sold his firm 15 years ago and joined the board of the Gallup Organization and went to Beijing to set up Gallup China.

This is the first in a series of monthly collaborative surveys that the Cook Political Report and RT Strategies will conduct to look at political trends, with an eye toward the 2006 and 2008 elections.

This survey sought to anticipate and deliver both the positive and negative arguments to be made about both Clinton and McCain and to test the receptivity among both their fellow party members, particularly those likely to vote in primaries, and the general public and national general election electorate. Riehle and Tarrance argue that it is only when the "total package" of arguments, pro and con, is brought to the attention of voters that you can begin to anticipate the true shape of the challenges the candidates will face.

For McCain, when respondents were asked if they had "heard, seen or read anything about Sen. John McCain running for president in 2008," 50 percent of Americans said yes, while 48 percent said no. Among registered voters, it was 52 percent yes, 46 percent no, and among Republicans, 56 percent yes, 42 percent no. In sum, the awareness of McCain's likely candidacy among Republican voters is less than one might think.

Then respondents were read the following question: "Some people say that McCain would be a good candidate for president because he has demonstrated a great deal of personal integrity... he has a strong military background and he has independent political views; while other people say McCain would not be a good candidate for president because at age 72 (his age in the fall of 2008) he is too old to run for president, he is too stubborn in his issue positions and he does not always represent Republican views on the issues." (In both the McCain and Clinton statements, the orders of the pro and con statements were rotated and sequence of each statement randomized.) "Which of those two statements comes closer to your point of view on John McCain running for president in 2008?"

Among all adults, 48 percent were pro-McCain and 35 were anti-McCain. Among registered voters, 49 percent were pro McCain and 34 percent were anti-McCain. But among Republicans, just 41 percent agreed more with the pro-McCain statements, while 45 percent favored the anti-McCain arguments. Among Democrats, it was 47 percent pro-McCain, 32 percent anti-McCain. Among independents, a whopping 55 percent agreed with the pro-McCain option and 29 percent agreed with the anti-McCain option.

Among the Republicans and independents who say they usually vote in GOP primaries, it was better for McCain -- 48 percent agreed with the pro-McCain position, and 39 percent agreed with the anti-McCain position, though this may well overestimate the true participation rate of independents in party primaries and caucuses. Among hardcore Republican primary voters, he ran about even -- 45 percent pro-McCain, 43 percent anti-McCain. In short, McCain has a real problem among Republican voters who seem, in Tarrance's words, to be "ambivalent about whether he is a good Republican."

Thus McCain starts off with an impressive level of general election potential, particularly for someone who has never had his name on a ballot in the vast majority of states, if he can get his party's presidential nomination.

There are virtually no differences in attitudes toward McCain between men and women, but his strengths are with those in the middle-age groups between 35 and 64, among whites, and those living in either the Northeast or West. There is also a direct relationship between the level of educational attainment and receptivity toward pro-McCain arguments, with 59 percent of those with a college degree agreeing with them.

Among those who agreed with the pro-McCain package, 41 percent responded most favorably to the "independent views" argument, 30 percent to the "personal integrity" part and 19 percent thought most of McCain's military background. Among just Republicans, independence was obviously less valued, coming in second place with 34 percent, behind integrity at 35 percent and in front of military background at 20 percent. Among Republican primary voters, 38 percent cited independence, 28 percent chose integrity and 23 percent said his military background.

Among all those who chose the negative McCain statements, 35 percent cited the age argument, 32 percent the argument that he doesn't represent the Republican party's views and 24 percent the argument that he is too stubborn in his issue positions. But among the self-identified Republicans who chose the anti McCain case, 49 percent zeroed in on the "doesn't represent Republican views" objection, 23 percent "too old," and 21 percent "stubborn."

Among Republican primary voters, 44 percent objected that McCain "doesn't reflect Republican views," 27 percent said he was "too old", and 22 percent picked "stubborn." The bottom line is that McCain's strength is also his weakness: independence. Independent and Democratic voters love his maverick style, but Republicans see him as a renegade, someone whose ideology and issue positions can't be depended upon.

In sum, Riehle believes that McCain will falter if he appears too old and lacking in ideological (specifically partisan) fervor; his integrity and independence might cause his fellow partisans to look elsewhere for a nominee, regardless of his obvious appeal to the middle.

Sen. Clinton's problems, meanwhile, are the precise opposite of McCain's. She shows great strength inside the party, but receives a tepid-to-hostile reaction among independents and Republicans.

First, 76 percent of Americans and 79 percent of both registered voters and of all Democrats have heard, seen or read something about Clinton running for president in 2008, a truly amazing number for a first-time presidential candidate. Tarrance speculates that she might be the most anticipated presidential candidate since Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in 1951 and 1952.

Respondents were read the following statement: "Some people say Clinton would be a good candidate for president because she has White House experience in her husband's administration, as the first woman president she would bring in new ideas and she is personally a strong and charismatic leader; while other people say Clinton would not be a good candidate for president because she is too tied to all the problems of her husband's administration, she is too liberal to win a national election, she voted for the war in Iraq."

Among all adults, 42 percent chose the pro-Clinton option and 52 percent the anti-Clinton option. The numbers were almost identical among registered voters, with 42 percent choosing the pro-Clinton option and 51 percent the anti-Clinton option.

But as with McCain, the real story is in the party breakouts. A huge 66 percent of Democrats agreed with the pro-Clinton statement, with just 29 percent opting for the anti-Clinton package. But among independents, just 41 percent of independents chose the pro-Clinton case, with 51 percent favoring the anti-Clinton arguments. Not surprisingly, among Republicans, 76 percent opted for the anti-Clinton arguments and 18 percent opted for the pro-Clinton.

Among Democrats and those independents who usually vote in Democratic primaries, 60 percent chose the pro-Clinton package and 34 percent chose the anti-Clinton arguments, while among the hardcore Democratic primary voters, it was 65 percent pro-Clinton, 28 percent anti-Clinton. In Tarrance's eyes, Clinton has a "brand image problem." The negative brand of being "too liberal" is an enormous albatross around her neck among independents and Republicans.

Not surprisingly, there is a huge gender gap. Among all adults, women were virtually tied, 48 percent choosing the pro-Clinton case, 46 percent the anti-Clinton arguments. But among men, just 36 percent picked the pro-Clinton case, and 58 percent chose the anti-Clinton case. And the age differentials are interesting. Among those between 18 and 34 and those 50-64 (her age cohort, the older Baby Boomers), the pro- and anti Clinton cases are almost exactly even, but those 35-49 had 16 percentage points more anti-Clinton than pro, while among those 65 and older, they were 22 points more anti than pro.

In the Northeast, the pros outnumbered the cons by seven points, and in the West, the cons outpaced the pros by five points. In the Midwest and the South, the anti-Clinton arguments prevailed by 16 and 18 points respectively.

Among all those who felt the pro-Clinton arguments more closely reflected their thoughts, it was a close call, with 35 percent citing "strong and charismatic leader," 31 percent choosing "White House experience," and 24 percent (18 percent of men and 28 percent of women) opting for the "first woman/new ideas" argument. Among Democrats, 35 percent chose strong and charismatic leader, 32 percent picked White House experience, and 25 percent selected first woman/new ideas.

The strong and charismatic leader argument surges among both voters who usually vote in Democratic primaries and hardcore Democratic primary voters, 40 and 42 percent respectively, with experience at 28 percent among each group and first woman/new ideas at 24 percent in each.

Among all adults who chose the anti-Clinton case, 44 percent cited the "too liberal" argument, 32 percent picked "too tied to her husband's administration's problems" and just ten percent picked "her vote for war in Iraq". Among just Democrats, 30 percent each picked "tied to husband's problems" and "too liberal", while 20 percent chose the Iraq war vote. The war vote was less of a problem with independents, as just 13 percent chose that issue. Thirty-eight percent picked too liberal and 32 percent chose too tied to husband's problems. Among Republicans, it was 55 percent picking too liberal, 32 percent her husband's problems, and 3 percent war vote. If Clinton cannot shed the liberal tag, it's difficult to see how she can possibly win a general election.

Among Democratic primary voters, it was 33 percent husband's problems, 32 percent too liberal and 19 percent her Iraq war vote. Among hardcore Democratic primary voters, the numbers weren't too different: 34 percent chose too liberal, 28 percent picked tied to husband's problems and 15 percent said the Iraq war vote.

Riehle believes that Clinton operates at the extremes of politics -- she creates wide gaps between women and men, between Democrats and Republicans, between women with postgraduate degrees (increasingly a Democratic base group she energizes with her image of charismatic strength) and the young, religious conservative Republicans and independents, who loathe her.

The bottom line is that each party's presumptive front-runner faces an enormous challenge: Clinton has to find a way to connect with independent and at least a few Republican voters, while McCain has to bond with members of his own party. Each of their tasks are likely to meet strong resistance.

The logical next question is whether the issue of electability begins to erode Clinton's support inside her own party, and if it does not, whether McCain's argument that he is the only Republican who can defeat Clinton will be enough for him to prevail in the primaries.

Charlie Cook's "Off To The Races" is published each Tuesday by National Journal. For more information about National Journal Group's publications, go to

Charlie Cook

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