Dan Balz's Take
Forget February. What About November?
By Dan Balz
On the eve of Super Tuesday, let's cast our eyes forward to November and the general election match-ups that are now most likely: John McCain against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll is a timely reminder that McCain remains a potentially formidable general election nominee for the Republicans in a year in which energy, enthusiasm and top issues tilt clearly toward the Democrats.
At this point among registered voters, McCain has a narrow lead (50 percent to 45 percent) over Clinton and is essentially tied (48 percent to 47 percent) with Obama. But there are some interesting differences in how key groups of voters split their votes, depending on whether Obama or Clinton is the Democratic nominee.
McCain's rocky relationship with the GOP base long has been his biggest hurdle in winning his party's nomination, but even Republican leaders who have differed with McCain over the years have grudgingly acknowledged that he could be their strongest nominee in the fall.
McCain has appeal beyond the base because of his maverick reputation. His advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform could stem losses among Hispanics otherwise angry at his party. And his national security credentials could be important in drawing distinctions with Obama in particular.
The independent vote is likely to be among the most critical constituencies in the fall campaign. President Bush carried it narrowly in his 2004 reelection victory, but it broke decisively for the Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections.
McCain is competitive against both Clinton and Obama in large measure because of his appeal to those voters. But he does far better with independents when matched against Clinton than when matched against Obama.
The Post-ABC News poll shows McCain clearly leading Clinton among independents, while narrowly losing them against Obama. A similar pattern occurs among moderates: McCain and Clinton now split them, while McCain loses them to Obama.
A general election campaign involving McCain and either Democrat would offer clear ideological contrasts. McCain's views on Iraq are now totally at odds with those of either Clinton or Obama. They are also miles apart on health care and even tax cuts, where McCain has shifted his views since the beginning of the Bush presidency.
McCain already has said he welcomes the chance to run against either and to draw those contrasts, although he has said he would do so in a respectful way. Slash-and-burn does not come easily to McCain, but indignation does. He has taken pains to express his admiration for Clinton and Obama but both sides are preparing for all-out combat in the fall.
The Post-ABC News poll shows that a race between McCain and Clinton would be the more polarizing, at least on the margins. McCain gets more of the Republican vote and less of the Democratic vote when matched against Clinton than when matched against Obama.
The gender differences in the two races are also notable. Against Clinton, McCain has a clear advantage among men -- particularly independent men. He carries them handily against Clinton but loses them just as decisively against Obama.
More interesting at this point is that Clinton and Obama do equally well against McCain among women. McCain and Obama split the votes among independent women, while McCain carries them against Clinton.
Clinton strategist Mark Penn earlier this year predicted that she could win as many as a quarter of Republican women in the fall. The Post-ABC poll suggests she has a long way to go. In the latest survey, her support among Republican women was in single digits -- and no better than her support among Republican men.
With Obama as the Democratic nominee, the electorate would divide far more clearly young vs. old than if Clinton is her party's standard-bearer. In a hypothetical McCain-Clinton matchup, the differences among age groups are relatively minor. But if Obama is the nominee, voters under 35 break decisively for the Illinois senator, while those over 55 go just as strongly for McCain.
Obama appears to have far more appeal in the West than Clinton, which may be one reason Democratic officials like Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano have endorsed him. Democrats see the Rocky Mountain states as an important new battleground and Obama does much better against McCain in the western region than does Clinton. No one at this point has any clear advantage in the Midwest, which will be the other critical region in the fall.
Any hopes Democrats may have that conservatives will revolt against McCain if he is their nominee are dashed by the Post-ABC News poll. About nine in 10 conservative Republicans support him over either Clinton or Obama at this point, although only about seven in 10 white evangelicals back him against either Democrat.
McCain actually does better among conservative Republicans against Obama than does Mitt Romney and does better among white evangelical Protestants against both than does Romney.
The Democratic race may have weeks to run before there is an effective winner. At that point voters will begin to take a more serious look at their November choices. But the optimism and expectations for victory in the fall among Democrats should be tempered by the early snapshot of a race with McCain as the Republican nominee.
Posted at 1:15 PM ET on Feb 4, 2008
Dan Balz's Take
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