PRINCETON, NJ -- Clearly the 2008 presidential election will be remembered for the historic Democratic nomination battle between a female candidate and a black candidate. But beyond those distinctions, Democrats currently view the election as historic in terms of the quality of their leading candidates -- 6 in 10 say both Obama and Clinton are better than most presidential candidates who have run during their lifetimes. In contrast, most Republicans view John McCain as neither better nor worse than prior candidates, and barely half of the party's supporters say they would be satisfied if he won the party's presidential nomination. It is unclear how this gap in candidate enthusiasm may play out in the general election, given that McCain is closely matched with both Democrats in Gallup's latest trial heats.
The Feb. 8-10 USA Today/Gallup poll asked Americans to size up the leading presidential contenders against "all the people who have run for president during your lifetime." The results show a substantial difference by party affiliation. Most Democrats say Clinton (62%) and Obama (60%) are better than most presidential candidates who have run during their lifetimes, including 12% who rate each as the "best presidential candidate." In stark contrast, only about half as many Republicans (34%) rate McCain as better than most candidates. The majority of Republicans, 52%, believe McCain is not much different from prior candidates.
Because independents and Republicans rate Obama more positively on this measure than they rate Clinton, he is rated the best overall, in that he scores highest among all Americans. Republicans' disdain for Clinton is clear -- nearly three in four rate Clinton as worse than most (34%) if not the worst (40%) presidential candidate in their lifetimes. But it is important to point out that Democrats -- despite the positive momentum now swirling around Obama's candidacy -- are as likely to give Clinton as Obama a positive historical review.
McCain's ratings on this measure are not all that different by party -- the majority of independents, Democrats, and (as noted) Republicans see him as a "run-of-the-mill" candidate.
The poll provides further evidence of Republican unease with McCain as the GOP presidential nominee with an update of a Gallup trend question asked in the 1988 and 1992 elections. Barely half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (51%) say they would be satisfied if McCain ends up the winner in the Republican race; 45% say they would have preferred to see one of the other Republican candidates win.
In 1988 and 1992, Republicans were much more enthusiastic about George H.W. Bush as the party's standard-bearer. In 1988, 68% said they were satisfied that Bush was the Republican winner, and in 1992, 80% were.
The question was also asked of Democrats in 1988 and 1992 -- Republicans' ratings of McCain are a little worse than what Democrats (and Democratic-leaning independents) said in June 1992 about Bill Clinton's nomination (58% were satisfied at that point in the campaign) and in June 1988 about Michael Dukakis' nomination (62%).
McCain does, however, fare about as well on a basic likability test within his party as do the Democrats in theirs. Seventy-one percent of Republicans have a favorable opinion of McCain -- essentially the same as Obama's 72% favorable rating among Democrats. Clinton is rated slightly higher by her party's supporters, with a 78% favorable rating.
Perhaps most importantly, at this point, McCain is basically even with both Clinton and Obama in likely voters' general-election preferences. That is in part because of his appeal to independents, but also because he currently does as well (if not better) at holding his own party's base as do Clinton and Obama.
Clearly, the Democratic race has attracted a lot of attention from the media and the public, as these two historic candidates continue to be locked in a tight battle for the party's presidential nomination. The Republican nomination is all but decided, but Republicans apparently are not overly thrilled with the outcome. It is unclear at this point if another Republican candidate would have generated any more enthusiasm among the party than McCain currently does. But more importantly, it is also unclear whether the apparent lack of GOP enthusiasm will sink the party's chances of winning in November.
These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,016 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 8-10, 2008. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 353 Democrats, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 305 Republicans, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 351 independents, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 424 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.