Politics

In N.H., Obama Tops on Most Character Dimensions

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Leads on all dimensions except “can get things done in Washington”

PRINCETON, NJ -- The USA Today/Gallup New Hampshire primary election poll shows Sen. Barack Obama strongly positioned to win Tuesday's contest. The poll also provides important insights into the dimensions of Obama's rise to front-runner status in New Hampshire. Perhaps most importantly, he has overtaken Sen. Hillary Clinton as the candidate perceived as having the best chance of beating the Republican in November. He has also gained substantially in Democratic voter perceptions of which candidate would bring new ideas to bear on the country's problems.

The Republican contest is shaping up as a tight battle between Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, with McCain holding a slight edge in the USA Today/Gallup poll. Republican voters are equally likely to perceive McCain and Romney as having the best chance of beating the Democrat in November. They perceive Romney as the "new ideas" candidate, but view McCain as the candidate who is most able to get things done in Washington, who stands up for what he believes in, and who is in touch with average Americans.

Views of the Democratic Candidates' Character

In the Jan. 4-6 survey, likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters were asked which of the candidates most embodied six personal characteristics.

In a year when "change" has become the word candidates most want to be associated with, Obama appears to have convinced New Hampshire voters that he is the candidate most likely to possess new ideas to help solve the country's problems. Fifty-one percent of likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters say this about Obama, compared with 19% who associate this characteristic with Clinton and 18% who believe it best describes former Sen. John Edwards. That is the largest advantage for any candidate on any of the six character dimensions tested in the poll. It also represents an improvement for Obama from the December USA Today/Gallup poll of New Hampshire likely voters, when these voters still viewed him as the change candidate, but by a 42% to 20% margin over Edwards.

Obama also holds substantial leads over Clinton and Edwards on four of the remaining five items tested in the poll. His only disadvantage comes in terms of getting things done in Washington, where Clinton is the clear leader, 49% to 25%. In an election in which "change" has become the dominant theme, a candidate's experience in Washington may be as much a liability as an asset.

Perhaps the most dramatic change in New Hampshire voter perceptions is that Obama is the candidate most likely to defeat the Republican in the general election. In the latest poll, 45% believe Obama has the best chance, while 34% believe Clinton does. In December, Clinton led on this dimension, 47% to 26%, even though Obama and Clinton were tied in likely voters' candidate preferences. This represents a gain of 19 points for Obama and a decline of 13 for Clinton in perceived electability after Obama's win in the Iowa caucuses.

Obama also bests Clinton and Edwards in terms of "standing up for what he believes in" and sharing voters' values. He edges out Edwards when it comes to being in touch with the average American, 39% to 32%, Edwards' highest rating.

Views of the Republican Candidates' Character

McCain and Romney are the dominant front-runners among New Hampshire Republicans in the contest for the party's presidential nomination, ranking well ahead of third-place Mike Huckabee, with all other candidates in single digits.

Not surprisingly, then, McCain and Romney tend to fare best in the eyes of New Hampshire GOP voters on the various dimensions of character tested in the poll.

McCain has a significant advantage on three items -- standing up for what he believes in (his best showing on any dimension, at 43%), being in touch with the average American, and getting things done in Washington.

Romney has an advantage on just one, but it is the one that most closely gets at the theme of change. Thirty-one percent of New Hampshire GOP voters say Romney is the candidate with new ideas to help solve the country's problems, compared with 18% for McCain, 15% for Huckabee, 12% for Rep. Ron Paul, and 10% for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

McCain and Romney are evenly matched on the remaining two characteristics -- sharing voters' values and having the best chance of beating the Democratic candidate in November. Romney's 34% on the electability dimension is his highest on any of the six tested in the poll.

Compared with the December results of this question, the most notable change has been in the perceptions of who can beat the Democrat in the general election. Romney fell from 40% on this measure in December to 34% in the latest poll. But the more substantial changes were a sharp drop in the percentage believing that Giuliani is best able to win in November (from 27% to 12%), and a sharp increase in the percentage who think McCain can win (from 12% to 27%).

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected sample of 778 likely Democratic New Hampshire primary voters and 776 likely Republican New Hampshire primary voters, conducted Jan. 4-6, 2008. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±4 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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