Politics

McCain vs. Obama as Commander in Chief

by Lydia Saad

McCain gets high marks, but Obama passes 50% threshold

PRINCETON, NJ -- John McCain's life experience has earned him a solid national reputation as someone who can serve as the nation's commander in chief, with 80% saying he can handle the responsibilities of this important role. Barack Obama lags well behind on the same measure, but does pass the 50% public confidence threshold.

Whereas McCain is viewed as qualified to be commander in chief by large majorities of Republicans (94%), independents (79%), and Democrats (71%), perceptions of Obama as commander in chief are more divided along partisan lines.

Most Democrats and a solid majority of independents say Obama can handle the responsibilities of commander in chief of the nation's military. Most Republicans, however, say he is not qualified.

The same June 15-19 USA Today/Gallup poll finds much smaller advantages for McCain over Obama on the narrower questions of which candidate Americans trust more to make decisions about sending U.S. troops into combat generally, and into Iran specifically.

McCain leads Obama by 53% to 40% as the candidate more Americans say they would trust if a situation arose that required the president to make a decision about sending U.S. troops into combat. The overwhelming majority of Republicans choose McCain, as do over half of independents and nearly a quarter of Democrats.

In terms of Iran specifically, however, Obama and McCain are nearly tied in public trust ratings. McCain's five percentage-point lead on this measure, 48% to 43%, is not statistically significant.

Nearly as many Republicans and Democrats choose McCain for sending troops into Iran as do so for the general sending troops into combat measure, but he has less support from independents. Whereas 54% of independents choose McCain as the candidate they trust more to make decisions about sending troops into combat generally, only 44% trust him more relative to sending troops to Iran.

This could reflect Americans' general agreement with Obama about U.S. diplomacy with Iran. As Gallup reported on June 2, about 6 in 10 Americans (59%) think it would be a good idea for the president of the United States to meet with the president of Iran -- a position Obama has espoused and McCain has roundly criticized.

Bottom Line

McCain clearly enjoys a more broad-based positive reputation with Americans for military matters than does Obama, but it is unclear how this will benefit him in the election.

McCain gets significantly more crossover acclaim from Democrats for being able to fulfill the duties of commander in chief than Obama does from Republicans, but this is unlikely to win him many crossover votes.

More importantly, independents express greater confidence in McCain than in Obama as a commander in chief; still, more than half do have confidence in Obama. And although more independents choose McCain as the candidate they trust to send U.S. troops into combat, generally, they are divided between McCain and Obama when it comes to sending troops into Iran.

In short, while defense issues are potentially one of McCain's strong suits, the more the issue is framed in terms of sending U.S. troops into combat, and particularly into Iran, the less helpful it may be to his candidacy.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,625 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 15-19, 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.

For results based on the 781 national adults in the Form A half-sample and 844 national adults in the Form B half-sample, the maximum margins of sampling error are ±4 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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