Politics

Obama Holds Lead Over McCain on Top Issue of Economy

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Voters give McCain edge on international issues

PRINCETON, NJ -- As the Democratic National Convention gets underway, voters, by a 52% to 40% margin, believe Barack Obama is better able than John McCain to handle the economy. The economy easily tops the list when voters are asked which of five issues will be most important to their vote for president.

Obama's 12 percentage point advantage over McCain on the economy marks a significant improvement from early February, when Gallup last asked this question. At that time, his advantage was 46% to 43%. More recently, Gallup asked slightly different questions about the candidates' economic aptitude, and found Obama faring significantly better than McCain in those polls as well.

At a broad level, voters clearly see the candidates as having opposing areas of strength. They give Obama the advantage on each of the four domestic issues tested in the poll, and McCain the advantage on all three international issues.

Obama's biggest issue advantage versus McCain comes with regard to health care policy (56% to 34%), a traditionally strong issue for the Democratic Party.

The candidates have spent much time on the campaign trail discussing the nation's energy challenges and their ideas for solving them, and so far registered voters rate Obama as better able to handle the issue, 51% to 40%.

Obama only holds a slight edge on taxes, 47% to 44%.

McCain leads Obama by double-digits on the three international issues tested, with the largest margin a 24-point advantage in reference to terrorism.

The presumptive Republican nominee also outpolls Obama on U.S. policy toward Russia, 52% to 35%. This issue has emerged in the campaign given Russia's recent invasion of U.S. ally and former Soviet republic Georgia, a move the United States government strongly opposed. This international flare up may be one reason that McCain has pulled closer to Obama in presidential trial heat polls in recent days.

Despite giving McCain a clear advantage on international issues, a slim majority of voters, 53%, say Obama can handle the responsibilities of commander in chief. That pales in comparison to the 80% who believe McCain is up to the role, but is an important threshold for Obama given his relatively thin experience in dealing with international issues. Even if voters believe Obama is better able to address the economy, they could conceivably disqualify him for the job if they do not believe he is capable of handling the president's international responsibilities. Obama's selection of Sen. Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate adds significant expertise on foreign policy and national defense to the Democratic ticket.

Implications

Obama's perceptual advantage over McCain in terms of handling the economy is a major plus for the Democrat's campaign. However, even with that advantage the overall presidential race remains close, which could reflect McCain's superior performance on international issues and concerns about Obama's lack of experience.

Obama may never overtake McCain in terms of being perceived as better able to handle international issues, so the Illinois senator's test may be in convincing voters he is competent to deal with such issues. Currently, a slim majority of voters believe he is, and a key goal for his acceptance speech on Thursday will be to maintain or expand that level while retaining his perceptual advantage over McCain on voters' top issue of the economy.

Meanwhile, McCain may not need to burnish his international credentials during the Republican convention, but a key for him is to convince voters he can do as well or better than Obama on the economy.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 923 registered voters, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 21-23, 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 ±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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