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
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
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
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
Cook's "Off To The Races" is published each Tuesday
by National Journal.
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