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Parsing the Polls: The "First Impressions" Problem

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

The Fix -- aspiring writer that he is -- tries to avoid clichés, but sometimes they are fitting. And when it comes to judging how voters view the candidates running for president at this early stage in the race, first impressions are critical.

A new USA Today/Gallup poll looks at how voters perceive the frontrunners for the 2008 Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

Let's parse the polls!

After asking a series of horse-race questions, the poll seeks to drill down to what specific character traits recommend one candidate over another in voters' minds.

On the Republican side, self-identified supporters of John McCain were asked why they backed the Arizona senator over former Rudy Giuliani. The question was open-ended -- meaning that the pollster did not prompt respondents with a series of choices about why they preferred McCain.

A combined 37 percent cited either McCain's deeper experience (19 percent) or their higher level of familiarity with him (18 percent) as the prime reason why they are backing him over Giuliani. Sixteen percent said they supported McCain over Giuliani because they agreed with the Arizona senator's "views" on issues (not including so-called "moral" issues); another 16 percent supported McCain because of his military background and strong stance on defense issues. Fourteen percent chose McCain over Giuliani because of his "honesty" and "integrity," while 11 percent cited his views on "moral issues/abortion" as their prime motivator.

USA Today/Gallup asked the same question of avowed Giuliani supporters. Not surprisingly, roughly one in five (18 percent) said the former mayor's handling of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and terrorism more generally recommended Giuliani over McCain. Thirteen percent cited Giuliani's profile as a "strong leader" -- an image directly connected to the terrorist attacks of 2001. The idea that McCain is "too moderate" or a "maverick" was cited by 10 percent of Giuliani backers -- the same percentage who said agreement with Giuliani on issues or his performance as mayor of New York City was the main reason they preferred him over McCain.

These numbers suggest that McCain's best route to winning the GOP nomination is to focus heavily on his years of on-the-job training to be president -- from his military service to his years in Congress to his run for president in 2000. The importance that McCain supporters invest in his "experience" could be the antidote for those undecided voters who believe that the Arizona Senator is too old to be elected president.

For Giuliani, his image as the candidate best able to keep America safe appears to be overriding any policy differences he has with supporters. The fact that 10 percent of Giuliani backers said they were behind the mayor because McCain was too moderate is a shocking testament to the fact that voters either aren't familiar with Giuliani's own moderate views or don't care. McCain and his team have been fighting the perception that he isn't a true conservative ever since the 2000 election, but it appears as though a segment of Republican voters simply aren't buying what the McCain camp selling.

Now, let's turn our attention to the Democrats where USA Today/Gallup asked the same question of supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

Roughly one-third of Clinton supporters said they were backing the former first lady because she was more experienced than Obama, while one in five (21 percent) cited Clinton's stances on issues as the reason they chose her over Obama. Fourteen percent said Clinton's gender was the deciding factor, while 11 percent said they didn't know enough about Obama to support him over Clinton.

Interestingly, the most common reason Obama supporters cited for their backing of the freshman senator was that they liked him better than Clinton or simply did not like Clinton. A matching 18 percent said they were more closely aligned with Obama on issues; 13 percent said he was a "fresh face" while 12 percent said Clinton has "too much baggage" or they "don't want another Clinton."

So, while Clinton supporters are largely motivated either by her experience or her stances on issues, Obama's support is rooted in the fact that he appears to be the best alternative Clinton. A whopping 30 percent of Obama backers mentioned their distaste for Clinton as the main reason for their decision to support the Illinois senator. Obama remains largely unformed, even in the minds of those who support him, while those backing Clinton have a seemingly clear idea of why they are behind her.

Yes, it's still very early in the nomination race; voters still have months (and months) to get to know each of these candidates better. But in politics, voters' first impressions of candidates tend to be the impressions they have of them by the end of the campaign. So, while these first impressions are just that, they are not to be discounted.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 28, 2007; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Parsing the Polls  
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Next: Hillary's New Hampshire Edge

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