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General Election Shaping Up as Change vs. Experience

General Election Shaping Up as Change vs. Experience

PRINCETON, NJ -- When Americans are asked why they would support either Barack Obama or John McCain in November's general election, Obama supporters (26%) are most likely to stress that he would bring about change and a fresh approach, while McCain supporters (28%) stress that he is the most experienced.

Now that Obama and McCain have become the presumptive nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, the question becomes one of ascertaining exactly what themes, concerns, and issues will be on voters' minds as they choose between the two candidates. There are clear differences in the demographic characteristics of the two candidates' supporters, and polling shows that both will begin the general-election race with their respective parties' traditional base groups of voters. But what's inside the minds of each candidate's supporters at this point? A recent May 19-21 Gallup Panel survey included an open-ended question asking Americans which candidate they wanted to see win the general election, and then asking those in each group to explain in their own words why they chose their particular candidate.

The conclusions from an analysis of the results can be summarized as follows:

  1. First and foremost, the reasons Americans give for supporting the two presumptive nominees show that they have picked up on the nominees' dominant themes as expressed in their campaign speeches, advertisements, and public pronouncements so far: Obama would bring about needed change, while McCain brings needed experience. These themes are articulated by more than one out of four of each candidate's supporters.
  2. As is typically the case in presidential elections, a significant percentage of Americans supporting the two candidates explain their preference in more generic ways, centering on partisanship or party identification or ideological positioning of the candidates, and general likes or dislikes of the candidates and their personalities. Obama supporters in particular are likely to mention their desire to prevent a Republican from continuing to occupy the White House as a reason for their support.
  3. Obama appears to be more of a lightning rod for his opponents than is true for McCain. The data show that McCain supporters are more likely to mention Obama (in a negative way) as their reason for supporting McCain than Obama supporters are to mention McCain as the reason they support Obama.
  4. At this early point in the campaign, few Americans supporting either candidate mention issue positions as the reason for their support, although, as indicated above, many do say they generally agree or disagree with a candidate's ideology or platform. Among specific issues for either candidate, Iraq is the most frequently mentioned, although by relatively few supporters.
  5. McCain supporters appear slightly more likely to mention their candidate's issue positions or specific traits as a reason for their vote than is the case for Obama supporters.
  6. The most frequently occurring explanations centering on Obama's personal characteristics are that he is "down to earth" and "cares about people," that he is honest, his leadership, and his intelligence.
  7. The most frequently occurring explanations centering on McCain's personal characteristics are that he is conservative, his war record and military service, and his leadership abilities.

Details: Obama Supporters

Obama supporters most frequently base explanations for their support on Obama's ability to bring about change and a fresh approach to governing, echoing the central theme of the Obama campaign so far this year.

Beyond this specific response, however, the next four categories of responses from Obama supporters are more generic or partisan in nature, rather than being specific to Obama attributes or policy positions:

  • not wanting another Republican or a third Bush term (the latter, of course, echoes an often-heard refrain from Obama on the campaign trail)
  • a straightforward partisan explanation that the respondent is a Democrat and always votes Democratic
  • general agreement with Obama's policies
  • a generic "Obama is the better candidate" response

Relatively small percentages of Obama's supporters give more specific explanations focusing on his characteristics or his issue positions. These include the perception that Obama is "down to earth" and "cares about people," that he is honest, has good leadership qualities, that he would end the war in Iraq, that he is intelligent, that it is time for a black president, and that he would unite Americans.

The most frequently mentioned issue position is Obama's stance on the Iraq war, offered by 3% of Obama supporters, and the healthcare issue and the economy, each given by just 1% of Obama's supporters.

Details: McCain Supporters

McCain supporters are most likely to say they support the Arizona senator's candidacy in November because of his experience and/or Obama's lack of experience. This -- as is the case with Obama's supporters -- echoes a central McCain campaign theme.

Beyond that, there is a category of explanations built around partisan or generic issues relating to McCain's overall persona:

  • general agreement with McCain on the issues
  • McCain is a Republican
  • McCain is a conservative
  • McCain is "the better candidate"
  • McCain is the lesser of two evils

McCain supporters are more likely to mention their dislike for Obama than are Obama supporters to mention their dislike for McCain. Six percent say they do not like Obama, 4% say they do not trust Obama, and 3% say Obama is too liberal.

Some McCain supporters mention his military background and his leadership qualities.

In terms of specific issues per se, 5% of McCain's supporters mention Iraq, while smaller numbers say they support him because of his position on the economy, gun rights, abortion, and taxes.

Bottom Line

Americans have clearly picked up on the "change" versus "experience" themes enunciated by Obama and McCain in the nascent stages of the general-election campaign. Additionally, a number of Obama supporters echo the Obama campaign theme that they do not want a third term of Republicans in the White House. Beyond these explanations for support, there are the usual partisan and generic explanations for candidate support found in any presidential election. It appears that McCain supporters are more specifically negative about Obama than is the case the other way around, and that McCain supporters have developed more specific explanations for their support based on their candidate's issue positions and personal characteristics than is the case for Obama supporters.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,013 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 19-21, 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 ±3 percentage points.

Results based on the sample of 452 respondents who want Obama to win the election have a maximum margin of error of ±5 percentage points.

Results based on the sample of 463 respondents who want McCain to win the election have a maximum margin of error of ±5 percentage points.

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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