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Parsing the Polls: First and Lasting Impressions

National polling at this stage of the presidential election tends to reveal more about voters' general impressions of the candidates rather than give any real indication as to who might actually win the party nominations.

But, as the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. First impressions in politics, as in life, tend to have an exaggerated amount of influence on how voters wind up viewing candidates.

So we were quite interested by a new Gallup poll that asked a national sample of voters how much confidence they had in the seven leading candidates for president on issues like the economy, the war in Iraq, terrorism and health care.

Let's parse the polls!

We start with the national sample of 1,011 adults that Gallup released on Tuesday.

On three of the four questions, it was the best known candidates -- Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democrats, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain for the Republicans -- who scored best.

Obama and Clinton ran even on the economy with 62 percent expressing a "great deal" or "fair amount" of confidence in the Illinois Senator's ability to do the right thing on the economy, while 61 percent said the same of the former first lady. Giuliani was third with 60 percent and McCain slightly further back at 53 percent.

Not surprisingly, the sample had the most faith in Giuliani when it came to handling terrorism, with 69 percent expressing a great deal/fair amount of confidence in his abilities. McCain took 66 percent followed by Clinton at 55 percent and Obama at 53 percent.

In something of a boost to McCain, he and Giuliani tied for the most trusted when it comes the war in Iraq; 55 percent of the sample said they had a great deal/fair amount of trust in each man on the issue. Obama was at 54 percent, while Clinton received a combined 51 percent. McCain's support for the war in Iraq is one of the main reasons cited for the struggles of his campaign.

Only on health care does another candidate break into the top four. Clinton leads the pack with 65 percent expressing a great deal or fair amount of confidence in her followed by Obama at 61 percent. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who has made his universal health care plan a major part of his campaign, was trusted on the issue by 54 percent of the sample. Giuliani, the lone Republican in the top four, took 52 percent.

While those national sample numbers are interesting, we were far more intrigued to see how Democrats, Independents and Republicans viewed the candidates on the above issues. Enter Gallup's invaluable Maura Strausberg and the Post's indefatigable polling director Jon Cohen. Thanks to that duo we have even more information to share.

Let's look at Democrats on Iraq -- far and away the most important voting issue in next year's primaries. Although Clinton has been pilloried for her vote in favor of the 2002 use of force resolution and refusal to apologize for that vote, it doesn't appear to be affecting her among Democrats. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats in the Gallup sample expressed either a "great deal" or "fair amount" of confidence in Clinton's ability to do the right thing on the issue. That total is virtually identical to the 78 percent who have expressed confidence in Obama and slightly higher than the 73 percent who say the same of Edwards.

Clinton also scores well on the confidence meter among independents when it comes to Iraq, with 55 percent saying they put a great deal/fair amount of trust in her judgment on the issue -- the highest of any candidate, Democrat or Republican. Clinton is also the most trusted candidate among independents on the economy (60 percent great deal/fair amount) and health care (66 percent great deal/fair amount).

On terrorism, Giuliani is most trusted by independents, with 63 percent expressing a great deal or fair amount of confidence in him. McCain is right on Hizzoner's heels, however, with 62 percent, while Clinton is within shouting distance at 56 percent.

Both former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.), who currently holds the number one slot on the Friday presidential Line, struggle in the poll. One in four voters (in the entire sample) have "no opinion" about Thompson on the war in Iraq, while 17 percent said the same of Romney on the issue. That trend is true for Thompson and Romney across the board on the four issues Gallup tested.

Why? Because Thompson and Romney are the least formed candidates -- in the eyes of voters -- of the seven given the best chance at becoming the next president. That gives them an opportunity (to define themselves as they want on the issues) and also a challenge (to raise the money and cut through the clutter to do so).

The struggles of Thompson and Romney in the poll point to the fact that it would be dangerous to read it as a conclusive judgment on how voters view the candidates on the issues. It's no coincidence that the four candidates with the highest national name ID -- Clinton, Obama, Giuliani and McCain -- also happen to be the most trusted on the issues of the day. Like any poll, it is a snapshot in time. But, never forget the importance of first impressions.

By Chris Cillizza  |  August 1, 2007; 8:33 AM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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