PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans see Barack Obama as better able than John McCain to handle energy issues and the economy, the two most important election issues in the public's eyes, according to a recent Gallup survey. Six other issues were tested in the poll, with the two candidates positioned roughly evenly on Iraq, moral values, and illegal immigration, while Obama has an edge on healthcare and taxes. McCain's only advantage is on terrorism.
The June 15-19 USA Today/Gallup poll asked Americans to rate the importance of the presidential candidates' positions on eight policy issues. The poll then asked respondents questions designed to measure the degree to which they perceive Obama and McCain as comparatively able to handle each of the eight issues.
A majority of Americans believe that the candidates' positions on all issues tested will be either "extremely" or "very important" to their vote, not a surprising finding given that each issue included in the list was one that has received attention and focus in the campaign this year. The proportion of Americans who rate each issue as "extremely" important, perhaps a better test of each issue's impact this fall, ranges from 27% to 51%.
Two issues top the list, based on the percentage rating each as extremely important in choosing between candidates: energy/gas prices and the economy. (Energy has spiked in its importance to voters in recent months as gas prices have risen to the $4-per-gallon level.)
Obama has a clear advantage over McCain on both of these top two issues. Americans give Obama a 19-point edge over McCain as best able to deal with energy, with 47% choosing Obama and 28% McCain. On the economy, Obama has a 16-point margin over McCain, 48% to 32%.
The next tier of issues -- Iraq, healthcare, and terrorism -- receive "extremely important" ratings from 41% to 44% of Americans. The positioning of the candidates on these three issues is mixed. Obama and McCain are tied as to who would be best able to handle Iraq; Obama wins by a substantial 25-point margin on healthcare; and McCain wins over Obama on terrorism by 19 points. (Terrorism is the only issue of the eight tested on which McCain has a significant margin over Obama.)
The bottom tier of issues is seen as extremely important by no more than a third of Americans: taxes, moral values, and illegal immigration. On two of these issues -- moral values and illegal immigration -- Obama and McCain are tied. Obama has a smaller, nine-point lead over McCain on taxes.
Obama is leading McCain by six points among registered voters in the head-to-head matchup included in the current USA Today/Gallup poll, and there are significantly more Americans at the moment who identify themselves as Democrats than as Republicans. So it may not be surprising that Obama is rated as better able to handle more of the tested issues than is McCain.
Regardless of the cause, the finding that Obama has significant strength on domestic issues is potentially quite meaningful in this year's election, given that gas prices and the economy are the two issues the public is most likely to see as important in choosing between presidential candidates. In fact, further analysis of the poll results shows that less than half of Americans believe McCain would be able to do a good job of handling either gas prices or the economy, while 59% say Obama would be able to do a good job on both of these issues.
Iraq, on which the two candidates have sharply divergent positions, is not too far behind energy/gas prices and the economy in terms of imputed importance. At the moment, Americans are equally likely to choose Obama as positioned to do the better job on Iraq as they are to choose McCain.
The poll points to one undisputed strength for McCain: terrorism. Slightly less than half of Americans say Obama would do a good job of handing terrorism, while 70% say that about McCain. But terrorism is slightly less important as a voting issue in Americans' eyes than are economic issues, gas prices, and Iraq. Indeed, a separate question in the poll, to be examined in detail later this week on gallup.com, shows that given a choice, Americans would rather have a president whose greatest strength is fixing the economy rather than one whose greatest strength is fighting terrorism.
These data would suggest that from a campaign perspective, Obama would be advised to play off his domestic strengths, particularly in terms of the economy, to attempt to neutralize McCain's strength on terrorism, and to increase his (Obama's) perceived strength on Iraq. McCain, on the other hand, has a clear base of strength on national security, but needs to move into a more competitive position with Obama in terms of critical domestic issues relating to the economy and gas prices.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,625 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 15-19, 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 point.
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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