PRINCETON, NJ -- George W. Bush may do as much damage to John McCain's chances of being elected as Jeremiah Wright does to Barack Obama's, according to results of a recent USA Today/Gallup poll.
The May 1-3 poll finds 38% of likely voters saying McCain's association with Bush makes them less likely to vote for McCain, while 33% say Obama's association with Wright diminishes their likelihood of voting for Obama. The Bush-McCain relationship does have more upside than the Obama-Wright association, though, as 7% say they are more likely to vote for McCain because of his association with Bush, while only 1% say they are more likely to vote for Obama because of his association with Wright.
Importantly, a majority of voters in both questions say the personal association will not affect their vote either way.
The nature of the relationships is clearly different -- Wright was Obama's former pastor, while Bush and McCain were rivals for the 2000 presidential nomination but Bush has endorsed McCain in the 2008 election. But both present problems for the candidates -- Wright for his incendiary sermons and controversial remarks that have raised questions about Obama's beliefs and his personal judgment, and Bush for his low approval ratings that hurt the GOP in the 2006 elections and may well do so again in 2008.
The poll also asked how Bill Clinton might affect voters' propensity to vote for Hillary Clinton. While the 33% who say it makes them less likely to cast a ballot for Hillary for president rivals the percentages found for the McCain-Bush and Obama-Wright associations, the 18% who say it makes them more likely to vote for Hillary means Bill also helps to attract support for his wife. Just under half say the Clintons' association would not affect their vote.
The percentages of voters saying they are less likely to vote for a candidate because of one of their personal associations probably overstates the true negative impact for the candidates, mainly because voters who might not seriously consider voting for a candidate in the first place (e.g., Democrats for McCain or Republicans for Obama) often respond that they are "less likely" to vote for that candidate. So it is instructive to see how the results compare among voters who are generally inclined to support a candidate -- the rank-and-file of the candidate's party.
From this perspective, the data suggest that Wright may be more detrimental to Obama's candidacy than Bush is to McCain's. Nearly one-fifth of Democrats, 19%, say they are less likely to vote for Obama because of his ties to Wright (only 2% say the Wright-Obama connection increases their odds of voting for Obama). Meanwhile, just 10% of Republicans say they are less likely to vote for McCain because of his association with Bush; about the same percentage (12%) say this relationship makes them more likely to vote for McCain.
It is important to note that the question asks about likelihood of voting for a candidate, so individual respondents may say that Obama's association with Wright makes them less likely to vote for Obama, but they still might vote for Obama. So in addition to measuring vote intention, the question probably also picks up some measure of enthusiasm for the candidates. As such, the actual percentages may best be thought of as a rough gauge of the risks that each of the controversial personalities poses to the respective candidate.
In general, the results are mixed as to whether Wright or Bush is a greater threat to his associate's presidential ambitions. Among the entire electorate, the two appear to be about equally damaging. In particular, Bush could hinder McCain's ability to attract independent and Democratic voters.
However, the poll suggests Obama may have a harder time holding his natural base of support given his association with Wright, and, as such, that may make Wright a greater threat to Obama than Bush is to McCain.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 803 likely voters, aged 18 and older, conducted May 1-3, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 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.
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