Politics

Seven in 10 Say Obama Understands Americans' Problems

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Public also more likely to think Obama has plan to solve problems

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are much more likely to believe that Barack Obama understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives than to believe John McCain does.

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These results, based on an Oct. 10-12 USA Today/Gallup poll, suggest Obama has a significant perceptual advantage in a presidential election campaign in which Americans overwhelmingly name the economy as the most important problem facing the country.

Throughout the campaign, Obama has been viewed as a candidate who understands the public's problems, but the 73% who say this about him in the current poll is the high for the year. Meanwhile, Americans are somewhat less convinced today than they were in March that McCain understands Americans' problems.

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The public not only gives Obama credit for understanding its problems, but also for having a plan to solve them. While neither candidate scores particularly well when the public is asked whether the candidates have "a clear plan for solving the country's problems," Americans are much more likely to say Obama does (51%) than to say this about McCain (35%).

Americans have become increasingly likely to think Obama has a plan to solve the country's problems since this was last measured in the spring.

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Much of this increase is because of changes in the views of Democrats, who were divided into Hillary Clinton and Obama camps in the spring, but now are mostly united behind Obama. In March, just 59% of Democrats thought Obama had a clear plan for solving the nation's problems, while 82% do now.

McCain is more competitive with Obama on the other three character dimensions tested in the poll.

McCain and Obama are viewed similarly in terms of their leadership and ability to manage the government. Sixty-three percent say McCain is a strong and decisive leader, while 61% say this about Obama. The two are now essentially tied on this measure, which had been an advantage for McCain earlier this year.

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Exactly 55% of Americans say each candidate can manage the government effectively, which is an improvement for Obama since the spring (when 48% said he could). Views of McCain's management ability have not changed since April, when the question was last asked, but are down slightly from a 60% reading in March.

At least half of Americans say each candidate shares their values, although more say this about Obama (58%) than McCain (50%). Both candidates now score slightly more highly on this dimension than they did in the spring.

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Implications

In an election in which the economy is the top issue on voters' minds, Obama is already seen as the candidate who can better handle the issue. During the campaign, Obama has been able to convince a growing number of Americans that he understands Americans' problems and has a clear plan for solving them, and now many more believe that he exhibits these qualities than does McCain -- a major plus for Obama's electoral prospects given voter anxiety about the economy.

Also, Obama has been able to largely erase the advantage McCain had over him on perceptions of their leadership ability. That doesn't leave much important territory where Americans believe that McCain is superior to Obama on character or issues, aside from McCain's continued advantage for handling matters of international policy. Thus, in order for McCain to prevail, in the remaining weeks he will either have to convince voters that he is as good as or better than Obama on the economy, or try to shift the agenda so that international matters carry greater weight in voters' minds.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,269 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 10-12, 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.

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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