The Voters Speak: Reasons Behind Support for Four Front-runners

by Frank Newport

Americans vary widely in reasons given for supporting front-runners

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Although the presidential campaign is still some nine months away from the first significant caucus or primary vote, the incessant campaigning and news coverage that is already taking place allows potential voters to form at least nascent images of the front-running candidates.

Recent Gallup polling has asked Americans to talk about the candidates in their own words. A February poll asked respondents to indicate why they felt the major candidates would make good or bad presidents (please see "Perceived Experience Major Asset for Clinton, McCain in 2008 Race" in Related Releases). 

Gallup's Mar. 23-25, 2007, poll measures the images of the front-runners in a somewhat different way. Gallup asked Republicans to choose between the two front-runners for their party's nomination -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- and then asked respondents to explain the reasons for their choice. Gallup asked Democrats to choose between New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and to explain their choice. The results give further insights into the dimensions of the candidates that Americans are taking into account at this early stage of the 2008 campaign.

Giuliani vs. McCain

Giuliani maintains his lead over McCain when Gallup asks Republicans and Republican-leaning independents to choose between the two, although Giuliani's lead is down from where it was in early March.

(Asked of Republicans and independents who lean to the Republican Party) Suppose the choice for the Republican presidential nomination narrows down to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani or Arizona Senator John McCain. Which one would you prefer the Republican Party nominate for president -- [ROTATED: Rudy Giuliani (or) John McCain]?

Giuliani

McCain

No opinion

%

%

%

2007 Mar 23-25

54

39

7

2007 Mar 2-4

58

34

8

2007 Feb 9-11

57

39

4

2007 Jan 5-7

50

42

8

Giuliani Supporters

Gallup coded and categorized the explanations of Republicans who support Giuliani over McCain, with the following results.

(Asked of Republicans who support Giuliani in head-to-head match up with McCain) What are the main reasons you are more likely to support Rudy Giuliani than John McCain for the Republican nomination? [OPEN-ENDED]

2007 Mar 23-25

Percentages grouped with similar responses

%

Giuliani's handling of 9/11 and terrorism

18

Leadership/Giuliani is a strong leader

13

Did a good job as Mayor of New York City

10

Giuliani is experienced/better experience for the job

5

 

Giuliani is more in touch/better with people/a good listener

8

Giuliani is honest/a straight shooter

4

 

Agree with Giuliani's views on issues

10

 

More familiar with Giuliani

8

 

McCain is too moderate/too much of a maverick

10

McCain changes his mind too much/wavers on issues

7

Giuliani has better chance of being elected

5

Concerned about McCain's age/McCain too old

3

 

Other

3

No reason in particular

7

No opinion

2

Percentages add to more than 100% due to multiple responses.

It is apparent that a good deal of Giuliani's support among Republicans continues to be based on his perceived leadership abilities, his track record as New York City Mayor, and his handling of the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. These are the most frequently given responses among his supporters.

Supporters also cite Giuliani's personal characteristics and the basic fact that they are familiar with him.

Relatively few supporters mention Giuliani's position on the issues as the reason for their support, consistent with the fact that he has not held any federal elected office and has worked in the private sector since leaving the mayor's office at the end of 2001.

A fairly substantial percentage of Giuliani supporters base their support for him mostly on problems they have with McCain. These comparisons include the belief that McCain changes his mind too much, is a maverick, is too moderate, is not electable, and is too old.

McCain Supporters

This table displays the reasons given by Republicans for their support of McCain over Giuliani.

(Asked of Republicans who support McCain in head-to-head match up with Giuliani) What are the main reasons you are more likely to support John McCain than Rudy Giuliani for the Republican nomination? [OPEN-ENDED]

2007 Mar 23-25

Percentages grouped with similar responses

%

McCain is more experienced

19

McCain's military background/is better on defense

16

McCain is knowledgeable

2

 

More familiar with McCain

18

 

Agree with McCain's views (other than moral issues)

16

McCain's views on moral issues/abortion

11

 

McCain is honest/has integrity

14

 

McCain is more conservative than Giuliani

5

McCain is more moderate than Giuliani

3

 

Other

7

No reason in particular

3

No opinion

2

Percentages add to more than 100% due to multiple responses.



McCain's supporters are considerably less likely than Giuliani's supporters to say they would choose their preferred candidate because of the opponent's shortcomings. The relatively few McCain supporters who cite specific comparisons to Giuliani focus on the two candidates' ideologies, with McCain being perceived as more conservative than Giuliani by some and more moderate than Giuliani by others.

Support for McCain appears to be built mostly on a favorable view of the specific characteristics he is said to exhibit, with his experience and military background the most frequently cited specific characteristics. Other McCain supporters cite his positions on the issues and his honesty.

Eighteen percent of McCain's supporters say their support is simply built on the fact that they are familiar with McCain. This is a plus for McCain at this point, but could be negated to the extent that other Republican presidential candidates become better known during the presidential campaign.

Clinton vs. Obama

As has been the case all year, Clinton has a significant lead over Obama when Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are asked to choose between the two.

(Asked of Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party) Suppose the choice for the Democratic presidential nomination narrows down to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. Which one would you prefer the Democratic Party nominate for president -- [ROTATED: Hillary Rodham Clinton (or) Barack Obama]?

Clinton

Obama

No opinion

%

%

%

2007 Mar 23-25

56

37

6

2007 Mar 2-4

56

36

8

2007 Feb 9-11

62

33

5

2007 Jan 12-14

53

39

8

Clinton Supporters

This table displays the reasons given by Democrats who say they would choose to support Clinton over Obama.

(Asked of Democrats who support Clinton in head-to-head match up with Obama) What are the main reasons you are more likely to support Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination? [OPEN-ENDED]

2007 Mar 23-25

Percentages grouped with similar responses

%

Clinton is more experienced

33

Clinton did a good job in the Senate/represented New York well

8

Clinton is knowledgeable/intelligent

6

 

Like Clinton's views on issues/agenda

21

 

Clinton is a woman

14

 

Bill Clinton was president

9

 

Clinton is strong/tough

4

 

Don't know enough about Obama/not familiar with him

11

Clinton has a better chance of being elected president

3

Race issue/country not ready to elect a black president

2

Don't like the way Obama has campaigned

*

 

Other

4

No reason in particular

3

No opinion

2

* Less than 0.5%

Percentages add to more than 100% due to multiple responses.

Perhaps not surprisingly given Clinton's 15-plus years in the public spotlight, her support is based largely on specifics about her experience and knowledge and her positions on the issues. Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, is mentioned by some supporters, and is presumably seen as a plus by these supporters because of the general experience and exposure to government it afforded Hillary.

Some Americans support Clinton because she is a woman and would be the first female president in U.S. history if elected.

There is some support for Clinton based on a favorable comparison to Obama, but the majority of this support appears to be driven by the fact that these respondents are not familiar with Obama. This may in fact be a plus for Obama, since the familiarity gap will likely close as the campaign moves forward.

Obama Supporters

This table displays the reasons given by Democrats for supporting Obama over Clinton.

(Asked of Democrats who support Obama in head-to-head match up with Clinton) What are the main reasons you are more likely to support Barack Obama than Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination? [OPEN-ENDED]

2007 Mar 23-25

Percentages grouped with similar responses

%

Like Obama better/do not like Clinton

18

Clinton has too much baggage/don't want another Clinton

12

Obama is less divisive/polarizing than Clinton

7

Country is not ready for a woman president

7

Obama has a better chance of being elected president

8

 

Agree with Obama's issue positions/agenda

18

Obama's anti-war views

7

 

Obama is a fresh face/has new ideas

13

 

Obama is honest

5

Obama's leadership skills/would unify country

4

Obama is intelligent/smart

3

 

Obama has done a good job in Senate/represented Illinois well

3

 

Other

5

No reason in particular

3

No opinion

2

Percentages add to more than 100% due to multiple responses.

Support for Obama in the context of this two-person "ballot" is at this point built to a large degree on the fact that he is not Clinton. This may not be surprising because Clinton has been a public figure for so much longer than Obama. Still, it suggests that while Clinton's experience and exposure is a plus in some Democrats' eyes, it also represents a negative to others.

The specifics cited by Democrats who are in essence "anti-Clinton" are the simple fact that they do not like Clinton, that Clinton has too much baggage or is too polarizing, and the belief that Clinton is less electable. A small percentage of Obama supporters back him because they believe Clinton's gender is a negative factor hurting her candidacy.

There is some support for Obama based on his positions on issues, particularly his opposition to the war in Iraq.

A relatively small percentage of his supporters mention the fact that he would be a new, fresh face. This factor has come up in previous open-ended investigations of Obama's appeal to Americans, but is less frequently cited in this context.

Bottom Line

A number of the reasons given by Americans for their support of these four candidates are similar: the experience of the candidates and their positions on the issues and their personal characteristics.

Of interest is the fact that Giuliani and Obama supporters are more likely than McCain and Clinton supporters to cite negatives about their preferred candidate's opponent as the reason for their support. This is most likely because McCain and Clinton are better known than the other two, but suggests that being relatively new on the national scene may have a positive side.

The data support several additional conclusions:

  • Giuliani's strength among Republicans is built on the base of his image coming out of New York and the 9/11 aftermath. He benefits at the moment from a positive comparison to his potential opponent, McCain.
  • McCain's strength is built on the positive image he has developed among his Republican supporters, including in particular his military background and his general experience. McCain also gains support from those who like his positions on the issues.
  • Clinton's strength is her knowledge, experience, and her positions on the issues. Her Democratic supporters seem to know her well, and applaud the specifics of her resume and stance on issues, including the fact that her husband was president for eight years. Some Clinton supporters explicitly cite Clinton's gender as the reason behind their potential vote.
  • Obama at this juncture appears to benefit from Democratic supporters who choose him over Clinton precisely because he is not Clinton and does not have the baggage and negative image she has developed among these Obama-supporting respondents. Obama gains some support because he is a fresh face with new ideas, and because of his positions on the issues.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Mar. 23-25, 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ¬Ī3 percentage points.

For results based on the samples of 429 Republicans or Republican leaners and 493 Democrats or Democratic leaners, the maximum margin of sampling error is ¬Ī5 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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