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When It Comes to the First Ladies Club, Public Views Obama Like an Incumbent and McCain Like a Challenger

By Jennifer Agiesta
Public opinion on potential first ladies most often produces one of two results: overwhelmingly positive ratings or big numbers in the no opinion column. New polls out today from CNN/Opinion Research Corp. and AP-Yahoo --as well as last month's The Washington Post-ABC News survey -- show that this year's contest presents both of these themes.

Meanwhile, a review of historical polls show that Michelle Obama's public image is similar to those of incumbent first ladies, while Cindy McCain scans more like a little-known wife of a presidential challenger.

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, nearly eight in 10 adults had already formed an opinion about Obama and positive views of her (48 percent were favorable) mostly outweighed negative ones (29 percent). A CNN poll out today found a similar split, with 51 percent holding favorable views, and 28 percent unfavorable ones.

Fewer in the Post-ABC News and CNN polls had formed an opinion on Cindy McCain (about four of 10 in each poll), and in both, more held favorable views (39 percent in both polls) than unfavorable ones (about a quarter). The AP-Yahoo poll (conducted online) found an even larger disparity in awareness of the two potential first ladies, with more than half not yet having formed an opinion of Cindy McCain, while just about a third were undecided on Michelle Obama.

The results for McCain (less well known, but with a little bit more weight in the favorable column than the unfavorable) are more consistent with historical views of a non-incumbent first lady than are Obama's. Teresa Heinz Kerry in 2004, Laura Bush in 2000, Elizabeth Dole in 1996 and Hillary Clinton in 1992 all fit a pattern similar to what is seen for McCain today.

Michelle Obama's results, somewhat surprisingly, look a bit more like those of an incumbent first lady, perhaps reflecting the amount of time she spent on the trail during the extended Democratic nomination fight and her more extensive media coverage, as reported in a June Pew Research Center study. Obama's ratings are close to those of Tipper Gore in 2000 or Laura Bush in 2004, though with greater unfavorable ratings.

Washington Post-ABC News polling first measured favorable ratings for potential first ladies in the 1992 campaign. In July of that year, incumbent Barbara Bush was widely known and her positive ratings outweighed her negatives by an astounding 5 to 1. But political newcomer Hillary Rodham Clinton was still relatively unknown. Just over four in 10 had no opinion about the future first lady; among those who did, the positive narrowly edged the negative, 30 percent to 26 percent.

By 1996, Clinton had become a well-known commodity, with more than nine in 10 feeling strongly enough about her to express an opinion. Views on Clinton remained divided, however, with 44 percent expressing a favorable view in June of that year, 47 percent unfavorable. Her GOP counterpart, Elizabeth Dole, three years before beating Clinton to the presidential campaign trail, enjoyed lower unfavorable ratings (just 13 percent held a negative view), but like Clinton in 1992, more than four in 10 had not yet formed an opinion.

In 2000, Post-ABC polling did not measure opinion on Tipper Gore and Laura Bush, but according to a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll conducted in June of that year, both Gore and Bush were more liked than disliked. One quarter had no opinion on Gore, and nearly six in 10 had not yet formed an opinion on Bush.

Teresa Heinz Kerry's emergence on the campaign trail in 2004 had made an impression on only about half of the public by July of that year. Those who had were about evenly split, 27 percent favorable, 26 percent unfavorable. And her whole first four years as first lady had only gotten Laura Bush as much public awareness as Michelle Obama has now. One in five had no opinion, but like the last first lady to share her surname (Barbara), views of Laura Bush were overwhelmingly more positive (66 percent favorable) than negative (12 percent unfavorable).

By Web Politics Editor  |  July 2, 2008; 5:03 PM ET
Categories:  The Pollster  
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To: Nobama | July 3, 2008 8:16 AM


Why to I picture Rush Limppaw typing all those PUMA posts, while laughing and popping more pills!?

Well, at least it makes me laugh everytime I see "PUMA". LOL

Posted by: Anonymous | July 3, 2008 12:59 PM | Report abuse

What I want to know is the favorability rating of Mrs. Obama by whites. I think that she would be a magnate for racial bias in a way her husband is not. If I am wrong, I would be very pleased.

I like her because she has values and integrity.

Posted by: Gator-ron | July 3, 2008 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Just say Nobama! We are PuMaS, we support Hillary. We are PuMaS, we have PMS. We are PuMaS, we will vote for McCain and then Hillary will win in 2012! Don't say we didn't tell you so!

Posted by: Nobama | July 3, 2008 8:16 AM | Report abuse

To me this just goes to show that America has a lot of growing up to do in terms of tolerance.

Michelle Obama is the American dream. She was born to a shift worker. Worked hard, went to Princeton, parlayed that into Harvard Law, where she met a great guy and then started a wonderful career and family.

Cindy McCain, on the other hand, was born into money. Which isn't bad, it just more of an European aristocracy thing.

I'm gonna go out on a limb: If Michelle Obama were white America would simply adore her.

She made a slight verbal slip-up, the same one John McCain made, and she was lynched for it in the press and in public opinion.

People need to grow up and start to see people for who they are. Not their skin color.

Posted by: JR, Boston | July 2, 2008 5:14 PM | Report abuse

So it's harder for Michelle to carve a new image. How much of a weight will Michelle be on the campaign?

Posted by: matt | July 2, 2008 5:07 PM | Report abuse

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