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Democrats Express Decided Preference for Change Over Experience

Democrats Express Decided Preference for Change Over Experience

Seventy-three percent favor presidential candidate who strongly desires to change Washington


PRINCETON, NJ -- The Democratic presidential nomination could well be decided on the basis of whether Democratic primary and caucus voters prefer an experienced candidate or one who would make changing the way things are done in Washington his or her top priority.

Hillary Clinton -- with a comfortable lead in nomination preference polling at this point -- is making her case for the nomination on the basis of her extensive experience in Washington, including her eight years as first lady and her six-plus years as a U.S. senator. Her closest competitors, Barack Obama and John Edwards, have much less federal government experience -- Edwards served one six-year term in the U.S. Senate, and Obama is in his third year as a U.S. senator. Not surprisingly, Obama and Edwards are attempting to portray themselves as Washington outsiders and are focusing their campaign message on their ability to bring change to the nation's capital.

In spite of Clinton's comfortable lead in nomination preference polls, a recent Gallup Panel survey finds that -- in theory, at least -- Democrats by a large margin attach more importance to a candidate who would bring about change than to one who has experience.

The Aug. 23-26 Gallup Panel survey posed the following questions to Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents:

Which will be more important to you when deciding which candidate to support for president in next year's election -- [ROTATED: that the candidate has experience getting things done in the current system in Washington, (or) that the candidate has a strong desire to change the system for getting things done in Washington]?

The results of this forced-choice question were lopsided in favor of "change" -- 73% of Democrats said changing the system would be more important to their decision about whom to support, while only 26% opted for "experience."

A separate question in the poll, on the other hand, suggests that it may not be a matter of "either/or." When asked how desirable or undesirable certain characteristics would be for the next president to have, an overwhelming 96% of Democrats say it would be desirable to have a candidate who "would bring about change in Washington" as the next chief executive. But a majority of Democrats, 59%, still think "a lot of experience in Washington" is a desirable characteristic, while only 11% say it is undesirable and 29% say it doesn't matter either way.

Even with the strong preference for change, most Democrats do not value limited experience in Washington -- just 18% say it is desirable, while 44% believe it is undesirable and 37% say it does not matter.

The ability to bring about change is not something that only Democrats are seeking in the next president -- 93% of all Americans think this would be a desirable characteristic for the 44th president, including 89% of Republicans. Fifty-six percent of Americans (including 53% of Republicans) believe a lot of experience is desirable.

While change is more important than experience to Democrats by both measures, the results suggest that Democrats still value experience and see a lack of experience in Washington as a drawback. Thus, Democrats may not view Obama and Edwards as experienced enough to handle the job of president. The Clinton campaign seized upon Obama's promise in a recent debate to meet without preconditions with leaders of nations unfriendly to the United States as a "rookie mistake" that a more experienced political hand like herself would not make.

Other factors might also help explain why Clinton is leading the race for the Democratic nomination when the desire is much stronger for change than experience:

  • In addition to touting her experience, Clinton is also promoting herself as an agent of change in Washington, so many Democrats hungry for change may see Clinton as capable of delivering that change, and possibly as better able to do that than Obama or Edwards. Thus, while most, if not all, "experience" voters may naturally align themselves with Clinton, many "change" voters may, too.

  • Even though levels of reported attention to the campaign are high, Americans may not be intimately tuned in to the nomination fight to the point where they have well-formed opinions of the candidates and their messages. Thus, the crucial association that Obama and Edwards need to make to succeed -- that each is the "change candidate" -- may not yet have been made in voters' minds.

  • Also, Clinton's lead may not be as solid as her wide margin suggests -- many polls show that many prospective primary voters have yet to make up their minds about whom they will vote for. A recent Gallup analysis showed that Clinton still leads among voters who are familiar with the three leading Democratic candidates, but by a smaller margin than her lead among all Democrats.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup Panel study are based on telephone interviews with 1,001 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 23-26, 2007. Gallup Panel members are recruited through random selection methods. The panel is weighted so that it is demographically representative of the U.S. adult population. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 500 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 441 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±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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