GALLUP NEWS SERVICE
PRINCETON, NJ -- The 2008 presidential election will be the first election since 1928 in which neither party has an incumbent president or vice president attempting to get his party's nomination. This suggests the potential for an election that will generate unusual interest from voters. In fact, early indications are that Americans are already paying as much attention to this election now as they typically do much later in the process.
Current political conditions in the United States favor the Democrats. The public is highly dissatisfied with the way George W. Bush is doing his job as president, in large part because of the war in Iraq. As a result, Americans rate the Democratic Party significantly more favorably than the Republican Party, and Democrats hold a large 52% to 40% lead (as of the first quarter, 2007) in the party identification or leanings of the general population.
When asked generically about the political outcome of the next election, Americans say they would rather see the Democratic Party than the Republican Party win the 2008 election if it were held today.
Early Measures on the November 2008 Outcome
The devil, however, may be in the details. A major cautionary note for the Democrats at this point in the election cycle is the disparity between Americans' partisan preferences for the next president in the abstract and their preferences between specific candidates being offered up to the voters. When asked to choose between the two major-party front-runners, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Americans divide almost evenly in their support. Test elections between other Democratic and Republican candidates (conducted by a variety of survey firms) show similarly close results.
One explanation: In spite of a very favorable Democratic environment, the public views the current Republican front-runners more positively than the current Democratic front-runners. Republicans Giuliani and John McCain typically receive favorable ratings in the mid-50s to low 60s. Ratings of Democrats John Edwards and Barack Obama are generally in the low 50% range, and Hillary Clinton's ratings have descended into the 40s. This Republican advantage in candidate popularity at this point may be offsetting the Democratic advantage in the political environment.
The Fight for the Nominations
Poll results at this phase -- nine months before the first primaries and caucuses -- do not necessarily bear a strong relationship to the reality that unfolds in the election year itself. This has historically been true for the Democratic nomination in particular. Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter, and George McGovern were all virtual unknowns who rose from obscurity to take their party's nomination. Republicans have, on the other hand, been more likely to settle on a nominee early, and stick with him.
In March, three-quarters of voters indicated that they did not yet have a good idea for whom they will vote next year. Only 14% said they had made up their minds about whom they will support.
Still, Americans are willing to indicate their preferences even at this early stage of the campaign. Two candidates have developed into the early front-runners for each major party's presidential nomination: Clinton for the Democrats and Giuliani for the Republicans.
Clinton's lead over second-place Illinois Sen. Obama was fairly consistent from January through early April, although it narrowed in a mid-April Gallup Poll. On the Republican side, Giuliani emerged as the leader in early February after having been closely matched with Arizona Sen. McCain earlier. McCain has continued to place second in trial heats since February.
There are other announced or semi-announced candidates who in theory may emerge as important factors for each party. None so far have challenged the front-runners in trial-heat polling.
Former North Carolina Sen. Edwards (a formally announced candidate) and former Vice President Al Gore (who has not ruled out a bid but has said he has no plans to run at this time) have been competitive for third place among Democrats. Each has support in the mid- to high teens, not far behind Obama.
Three Republicans are competing for third place in terms of Republicans' support for their party's nomination -- actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Each of these candidates' support hovers around 10%. Of these, only Romney has formally announced. None of the other potential or announced candidates in either party have so far received more than a few points in pre-election primary nomination polls.
Eight out of 10 Democrats nationwide, compared with only 6 out of 10 Republicans, are satisfied with the choice of candidates for their respective party's nomination. This relative lack of satisfaction on the GOP side could be seen as a sign of encouragement for unannounced Republicans such as Thompson and Gingrich to officially enter the race. The finding that there is a high level of satisfaction among rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party may suggest less of an opportunity for Gore if he were to decide to enter the Democratic field.
The Candidates' Developing Images
One function of the very early start on the presidential campaign this year is a great deal of exposure of the candidates to potential voters. Some of the candidates had well-developed images before the campaign process began. For these, the campaign process in 2007 will serve to either reinforce or modify what voters already perceive. Others began as virtual unknowns, suggesting that the campaign process will help these candidates build an image from scratch.
Clearly, Clinton is the best-known candidate at this point, with nearly 100% name ID. When asked to comment on Clinton's attributes, voters are especially likely to give her credit for her knowledge and expertise. Her long and highly visible political background also has a downside, as some voters cite her political "baggage" as a reason they would not vote for her. She is also less likely than Obama to be seen as likable. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is seen as an asset to a Hillary Clinton presidency rather than a detriment, even among Republicans.
Clinton's image has fluctuated considerably over the 14 years since her husband first entered the White House. Earlier this year, her favorable ratings reached 58%, but by mid-April they had dropped to 45%. Among the well-known contenders in both parties, only Gingrich is less popular at this point.
Voters are on a learning curve when it comes to Obama. His familiarity has risen from 53% in December to 79% today. So far, his favorability ratings have remained positive, although his negatives have risen from 11% to 27%. Obama's great appeal to voters is his youth and political freshness, according to Gallup open-ended responses. He is also seen as likable. Voters cite his inexperience as his biggest weakness.
Giuliani maintains a positive national image, although by mid-April his favorable rating had fallen by a few points to the lowest in Gallup's three-year tracking history. Still, his favorables are the highest of any candidate from either party, including an 82% favorable rating from Republicans.
A March USA Today/Gallup poll found a majority of Republicans were unaware of Giuliani's positions on abortion, gun control, and same-sex marriage. Research shows that significant segments of Republicans, particularly more conservative Republicans, are less likely to vote for Giuliani once his positions on these issues are explained. Giuliani may have a problem with religious Republicans in some early primary states. According to a recent Gallup analysis, more intensely religious Republicans were shown to be significantly less likely to vote for Giuliani than were less religious Republicans, although Giuliani still was the leading candidate among the former group. How Giuliani positions himself on social issues will be one of the early campaign's most important developments.
McCain's supporters cite his "experience" and "qualifications," and see his military background as an asset. McCain's highly public support for the Bush administration's surge in troops in Iraq runs counter to the opinion of the majority of Americans. Republicans, however, widely support the surge, and continue to support the war in Iraq. McCain's potential to win the GOP nomination thus could be contingent on perceived progress in Iraq by the end of 2007.
A Different Kind of President?
A number of the leading candidates this year have personal characteristics atypical of past presidents. Clinton is a woman. Obama is black. Giuliani is Catholic and has been married three times. McCain is 70 years old. Romney is a Mormon.
Clinton's gender and Obama's race are obvious factors that voters have presumably already taken into account when reviewing the candidates and giving their candidate preferences. The vast majority of voters say neither gender nor race will factor into their vote. Clinton's gender may be a plus with her base of female Democrats and with female independent voters. Gallup analysis suggests that her gender is a particularly relevant factor for female independent voters.
The effects of McCain's age, Giuliani's personal background, and Romney's religion are more difficult to predict. Polling Americans about their reactions to these factors suggests each could be a negative to sizable segments of the population. Advanced age (a candidate who will be 72 years old on Election Day) generates the most significant pushback, with 4 in 10 voters saying this would be a drawback in a candidate.
Both Obama and Clinton are competing for the black Democratic vote, a minor factor in early primary and caucus states such as New Hampshire and Iowa, but of significant importance in South Carolina and in larger states that have moved their primaries to early February.
The best current estimates are that the two leading contenders are fairly closely matched among black Democrats.
With the exception of Gore, Edwards and Gingrich, most of the other potential candidates for both parties have relatively low name identification. These include Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, Tommy Thompson, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson.
Low name identification at this point may have an upside because it gives a candidate the opportunity to strategically develop his or her image as the campaign progresses. However, the challenge is to develop that image quickly; the front-loading of primaries and caucuses in January and February of next year will leave little time for extensive image building.
Iraq is overwhelmingly seen as the most important problem facing the country today, and is the top issue Americans at this point say they will take into account in their 2008 vote. The degree to which Iraq will continue to dominate the election by next year is unknowable. A scenario in which U.S. troops have begun to withdraw from Iraq by 2008 is not out of the question, nor is a scenario in which the recent "surge" in troops is seen as a success. Each of these would significantly affect the presidential campaign.
Concerns about terrorism will probably continue to be a strong latent issue. The economy is always a factor in an election. Consumer views of the economy became more positive in January, but by March had dropped significantly. This may partly reflect the increasing price of gas. Many aspects of the economy, in addition to energy costs, could come into play next year, including international trade, tax cuts, and income inequality. Healthcare is a rising concern to Americans, who want government involvement, but do not want a national healthcare plan. Smaller segments of voters are also concerned about illegal immigration and social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
The Campaign Process
Voters are as likely to say that it's good, rather than bad, that the election campaign has started so early. Presumably some Americans believe the grueling process exposes them to the candidates and provides better information with which to make an informed voting decision. Voters also are not disturbed by the large amounts of money being raised by the candidates; most say it will not make a difference in the quality of the candidate who is ultimately elected president.