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Obama Still Lags McCain as Leader, Commander in Chief

Obama Still Lags McCain as Leader, Commander in Chief

Obama’s strengths lie in domestic, softer issues

PRINCETON, NJ -- John McCain has an edge over Barack Obama in the public's eyes as a strong and decisive leader, and McCain is also significantly more likely to be viewed as able to handle the job of commander in chief. These facts underscore an area of weakness for Obama that McCain has attempted to exploit in recent campaign ads, and that Obama could in theory fruitfully address in his high-visibility acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night.

The latest USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted Aug. 21-23, asked Americans to indicate whether a list of characteristics and qualities best fit Obama or McCain.

Obama beats McCain by a 7-point or larger margin on four dimensions: caring about people's needs, the ability to work well with both parties to get things done, being independent, and sharing respondents' values. The two are essentially tied in perceptions that they put the country's interests ahead of their own, that they are honest, and that they are able to manage government effectively.

McCain is significantly ahead on a single, but important, dimension: "is a strong and decisive leader." Not coincidentally, this has been a key focus in recent McCain attack ads against Obama. (Despite the ads, there has been almost no change since mid-June in perceptions of who is the better leader.)

A separate set of questions included in the recent poll asked respondents to indicate whether they believe Obama and McCain could "handle the responsibilities of commander in chief of the military."

Obama clearly operates at a decided perceptual deficit compared to McCain on this dimension. Eighty percent of Americans say McCain can handle the responsibilities of being commander in chief, compared to 53% for Obama. These views have not changed throughout the summer.

McCain's edge almost certainly reflects in part that he was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and an officer in the U.S. Navy for decades, while Obama did not serve in the military. It may also reflect the fact that McCain is older, has more experience in the U.S. Senate and federal government, and has taken a leading role in the Senate in many foreign policy issues, most notably the Iraq war. If these are the major underlying facts informing Americans' opinions about the candidates, then it is unclear to what extent Obama's rhetoric or McCain's campaign ads could change the existing perceptions.

But the trend lines from four years ago suggest that the views of the public on this dimension can change. George W. Bush and John Kerry scored similarly on the commander-in-chief item in two polls conducted in June and late July/early August 2004. But from September on, after the two conventions and particularly the now-famous "Swift Boat" attacks on Kerry, Bush had a significant advantage on the commander-in-chief dimension.


A previous Gallup analysis reviewed data showing that Obama has the edge over McCain in the eyes of Americans on domestic issues such as the economy, healthcare, and energy, while McCain does better on international issues such as terrorism, the situation in Russia, and Iraq.

Coupled with the data reviewed here on personal characteristics and qualities, it is clear that Obama has a cluster of strengths relating to "soft" dimensions such as caring and values, and domestic issues. McCain has a "harder" image, with credit for being a strong leader and potential commander in chief, and being able to handle international issues. This positioning of the two candidates is not unusual in a broad sense, and reflects broad Republican versus Democratic strengths in recent elections (although as noted, Kerry for a period of time early in the 2004 campaign was able to tie Bush on the commander-in-chief dimension).

There are as many theories about what Obama "needs to do" in his acceptance speech Thursday night at Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High as there are pundits or observers' opinions. Obama's speech will no doubt end up touching on a wide variety of issues, themes, and positions. If the speech does not focus on changing some Americans' minds on Obama's leadership and commander in chief abilities, however, McCain will continue to have the opportunity to exploit a perceived weakness on Obama's part between now and Nov. 4.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,023 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug 21-23, 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.

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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