Politics

Analyzing Potential November Matchups by Voter Subgroup

by Jeffrey M. Jones

McCain currently the favorite of independents

PRINCETON, NJ -- The most recent USA Today/Gallup poll presidential trial-heat results were based on larger sample sizes, allowing for a thorough assessment of how voter subgroups break down in their preferences between the leading Republican and Democratic candidates in hypothetical November matchups. Although much will change between now and next fall's election -- including the final determination of who the nominees will be -- these results provide useful insights into the leading candidates' current strengths and weaknesses in a general election context.

Here are some of the key findings from the Jan. 10-13 poll data:

  • Republican John McCain appears to have the greatest appeal to independent voters, and is competitive with Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama among self-identified moderates.
  • Clinton does a better job than Obama of holding the Democratic base against the Republicans, but Obama draws a greater share of the independent and Republican vote.
  • The gender gap is evident -- both Democrats fare better among women than men. McCain currently exhibits an especially strong appeal to male voters.
  • Obama's support is strong among highly educated voters, but he is only tied with Republican Mike Huckabee and loses to McCain among those with the least amounts of formal education.
  • Religious voters, not surprisingly, strongly back the ordained minister Huckabee against the Democrats. But McCain does just as well among religious voters as Huckabee.

Detailed results among key demographic groups follow:

Partisanship

All of the candidates do a good job of holding their party's base, though Clinton seems to do a better job than Obama of keeping Democrats in the fold. But Obama makes up for that to some degree by attracting greater support from independents and Republicans.

At this point, McCain appears to exhibit the greatest appeal to independent voters, as he easily outpolls Clinton among unaffiliated voters and edges Obama. Huckabee trails both Clinton and Obama among independents.

Ideology

The candidates' support along ideological lines is largely what one would expect, with the Democrats the overwhelming choice among liberals and the Republicans the overwhelming choice among conservatives. McCain is competitive with both of the Democrats among those who identify themselves as political moderates, while Huckabee trails the Democrats by considerable margins among this group.

Gender

Clinton's appeal to women is evident in these trial-heat results, as she leads both McCain (52% to 45%) and Huckabee (54% to 41%) among women. But McCain may currently have an even greater appeal to men -- he leads Clinton by 55% to 42% among male likely voters and Obama by 54% to 43%.

Obama fares better among women than men, but still beats Huckabee among both groups.

Race

Perhaps one of the crucial decisions facing Democratic primary voters as they select their party's nominee is whether they believe Obama can win in the general election to become the nation's first black president. The answer may depend on whom he runs against. When matched up against McCain, white voters overwhelmingly choose the Arizona senator over Obama. But in the Obama-Huckabee matchup, Obama has the edge among both whites and nonwhites.

As would be expected given blacks' traditionally strong support for the Democratic Party, both Clinton and Obama easily defeat the Republicans among blacks. Huckabee seems to have a somewhat greater appeal to black voters than does McCain, though neither Republican candidate can count on much support from blacks.

Age

Both Democratic candidates have an advantage among younger voters, regardless of the opponent, but McCain rebounds among the older age groups. The Democratic candidates lead Huckabee among all age groups.

An Obama-McCain matchup, which would involve a 47-year-old first-term senator against a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran and long-time member of Congress, would certainly present an interesting generational contrast. This early indication of the candidates' relative strength by age suggests Obama would do very well among younger voters while McCain would show about the same level of strength among older voters.

Obama owes a good deal of his success in the primaries and caucuses to date to support from young voters. But according to these results, he may not fare that much better among young voters in the general election setting versus a Republican than Clinton would.

Education

The usual pattern in vote by education level is a U-shaped distribution, with Democrats doing better among the most- and least-highly educated groups, and Republicans doing better among the middle education groups. That is clearly the case in the matchups that pit Clinton against the Republicans, but does not apply when Obama is in the race.

Against Huckabee, Obama leads by wide margins among the two most highly educated groups: those with some postgraduate education and those with a four-year college degree. Obama and Huckabee are competitive among those without a college degree.

And while Obama beats McCain among the most highly educated, McCain holds the edge among the other educational groups, with his biggest advantage of 11 points coming among those with the least amount of formal education.

Religiosity

Huckabee, the ordained Baptist minister, has demonstrated a strong appeal to regular churchgoers in the GOP primaries and caucuses, and he easily defeats Obama and Clinton among those who attend church weekly in the trial-heat matchups. But his appeal to the most religious voters is no greater than McCain's, at least in a general election context versus the leading Democrats. This suggests that religious voters will likely back the GOP nominee regardless of who it is.

Marital Status

The gender gap in presidential voting receives a lot of attention, but the gap between married and unmarried voters has also been evident in the last several elections, and voters divide more sharply along marital lines than along gender lines. Married and not-married voters' preferences are essentially mirror images of each other when McCain is matched against the Democratic candidates. Not-married voters also show strong support for Clinton and Obama versus Huckabee, by nearly 2-to-1 margins. Huckabee's support among married voters is much greater, though he fares better among those who are married against Clinton than he does against Obama.

Region

The Republicans seemingly have a lock on the Southern states' electoral votes, and the trial-heat data suggest that is likely to be the case in 2008 as well. Both Huckabee and McCain easily defeat the Democratic candidates in the South. McCain would appear to be competitive with the Democrats in the West and Midwest. Obama and McCain are running even in the East, but Clinton currently maintains an edge over McCain in her home region.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 2,010 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 10-13, 2008. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±2 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 1,598 likely voters, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. Margins of error for the subgroups reported here will be larger.

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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